How Could Catholics and Protestants Commemorate the Reformation–Together?

by Jimmy Akin

in Apologetics, History, The Church, Theology

reformationIn recent years both Catholics and Protestants have been puzzled by occasional mentions in the press that the two groups would be jointly commemorating of the upcoming five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

What on earth?

Why would Catholics commemorate such an event?

Let’s talk about that.


“And So, It Begins . . .”

According to legend, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenburg, Germany.

Despite the legend, we don’t have solid evidence that he actually did this, but it is true that in 1517 Luther published a set of 95 propositions he proposed for academic debate.

Surprisingly, the 95 Theses do not refer to or sola scriptura or sola fide—doctrines that later came to define the Protestant movement. In fact, the concept of justification isn’t even mentioned in them.

Instead, they deal with indulgences, purgatory, and various Church teachings and practices connected with them.

With time, however, the debate widened to include additional subjects, and within a few years a whole host of doctrines were under dispute.

Attempts were made for several decades to reconcile the parties involved, but with time the divisions hardened, and the Protestant-Catholic split has been with us ever since.


Anniversaries of the Reformation

Whether or not Luther did anything on October 31, 1517, that date became standard for marking the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

Even today, some Protestant churches celebrate “Reformation Day” as an alternative to Halloween.

And even in groups that don’t have a problem with Halloween, there are periodic celebrations of the anniversary of the Reformation.

The centennial anniversaries—1617, 1717, 1817, and 1917—had particularly notable celebrations in the Protestant community.

Now we’ve arrived at the five hundredth anniversary—2017—and this has posed new challenges, for both Protestants and Catholics.


Mutual Animosity

In the past, it seemed obvious how the two communities should mark hundredth anniversaries of the Reformation.

For Protestants, it was obvious that they should have a big party—a celebration of Luther and his colleagues as (small “s”) saviors of Christendom, who rescued the Christian Faith from popish corruption and heresy. The Reformation was a glorious triumph, and that needed to be celebrated.

For Catholics, the reverse was true: The Reformation was a horrible tragedy, and it should in no way be celebrated. There should be no Catholic marking of the occasion, except as the anniversary of one of the darkest days in history, with the memory of Luther—the arch-heretic—thoroughly execrated.

Given the mutual animosity between the two groups, these ways of looking at the event were a given.


A Change in Attitude

The twentieth century saw a change in attitude between the two groups.

While there are still strongly anti-Catholic Protestants and strongly anti-Protestant Catholics, the two communities have, as a whole, developed much warmer relations.

A variety of factors have contributed to this warming.

In the 1500s, religion was closely tied to the local government. The principle cuius regio, eius religio (Latin, “Whose region, his religion”) meant that the religion of the local ruler would be the religion of the state.

Consequently, subscribing to a different faith could be seen as a politically subversive act, and feelings of nationalism got tangled up with religious sensibilities.

As society has become more secular, though, those tensions have eased among Christians.

Indeed, growing secularism has led Protestants and Catholics to band together. Here in the United States, Roe v. Wade led to unprecedented cooperation between the two on the subject of abortion, and more recent developments have seen the two sides uniting in mutual defense of religious freedom.

We’re also living in an age of increased social mobility and communication. People no longer spend their whole lives within ten miles of the tiny agricultural village where they were born, and they can communicate with anyone in the world via the Internet.

These factors have all led Protestants and Catholics to get to know each other better, to build bridges, and to form alliances.

Socially, we are not the enemies that we once were. Now, we’re usually allies.


“That They May Be One”

Accompanying these changes, both groups have also meditated more profoundly on Our Lord’s requirement that Christians must work to overcome differences and strive for unity.

On the night he was betrayed, Jesus spoke—repeatedly—about the need for Christian unity.

Among other points, he said that it would be by Christians’ love for one another that the world would know they are his disciples.

For Christians to be locked in conflict and mutual hostility therefore creates a barrier to the spread of the Gospel, and this came to weigh more heavily on Christian leaders as the gospel began losing ground to secularism.

Over the course of the twentieth century, Christian leaders became more and more convinced that we needed to find a way around the old hostilities and to begin rebuilding the unity we had lost.

This put the approaching five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation in a new light.


Jesus on Christian Unity

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (John 15:10).

“And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to thee. Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11).

“I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word,  that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.  The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me” (John 17:20-23).


“What Unites Us”

As Christians began to move closer together, they began a mutual re-examination and re-appraisal.

A starting point for this was the willingness to acknowledge the good in each other’s communities: Protestants acknowledged that Catholics were not all bad, and Catholics did the same for Protestants.

This applied not only to personal morals but also to our respective theologies.

In the years of conflict that followed the Reformation, attention focused on our theological differences, but we share a great deal of theology—belief that there is only one, true God, that Jesus Christ is his Son, that God is a trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Concerning Jesus, we believe in his Virgin Birth, his atoning death on the Cross, his bodily resurrection and ascension, and his Second Coming.

We believe in the general resurrection and the final judgment, in heaven and hell, in sin and salvation, in the holy Scriptures as the inspired word of God, and in numerous additional truths.

In words commonly attributed to St. John XXIII: “What unites us is much greater than what divides us.”


Purification of Memory

Preparing for the Jubilee Year 2000, St. John Paul II called for a “purification of memory.” This, he explained, “calls everyone to make an act of courage and humility in recognizing the wrongs done by those who have borne or bear the name of Christian” (Incarnationis Mysterium 11).

The jubilee year may have been a particularly appropriate occasion for this, but such a re-examination, in general terms, was already well underway.

The mutual Catholic-Protestant re-assessment meant not only seeing the positive aspects of the other party, it also meant acknowledging the flaws of our own side.

For Protestants, this meant a frank examination of Luther and his colleagues with the understanding that they could and did make mistakes.

For Catholics, it meant a look back at the time leading up to the Reformation, and the Reformation itself, with an awareness of our own forebears’ mistakes.

There were things in the Church needed of reform. That’s why we held a Counter-Reformation.

The Council of Trent did not meet simply to condemn things Protestants were saying. It has numerous decrees dealing with reforming various aspects of the Catholic Church. And there was a vast amount of reform work done in Catholic circles in the century following the council.

Both groups also have troubled histories in the years since the Reformation began. Pope Benedict XVI noted:

“Looking back over the past, to the divisions which in the course of the centuries have rent the Body of Christ, one continually has the impression that, at critical moments when divisions were coming about, not enough was done by the Church’s leaders to maintain or regain reconciliation and unity. One has the impression that omissions on the part of the Church have had their share of blame for the fact that these divisions were able to harden” (Letter, July 7, 2007).

And once the divisions between Protestants and Catholics did harden, we had the European Wars of Religion, mutual martyrdoms, and ongoing mutual persecution and hostility.


From Heretics to Separated Brethren

For centuries, Catholics and Protestants routinely described each other as heretics. Yet today this language has largely been dropped.

Why is this?

There is no official definition of the term “heresy” in Protestant circles. It is taken to mean some kind of highly unacceptable theological view, though there is no agreed-upon standard of what counts as a heresy.

Consequently, the growing acceptance of Catholics as fellow Christians, along with warmer social relations, has led most in the Protestant community to retire the term for Catholics.

In the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council set a new and more positive tone by referring to Protestants not as heretics but as “separated brethren.” The basis of this term is found in the fact that they are brothers in Christ by virtue of their baptism, but they are separated since they are not in communion with the Catholic Church.

While this description is accurate, is there any reason—other than politeness—to think that the term “heretic” should be avoided?

Unlike in the Protestant community, the term “heresy” has an official definition in the Catholic Church.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same” (CCC 2089).

The phrase “some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith” refers to a doctrine that has been infallibly defined by the Church as divinely revealed—i.e., a dogma.

While Protestants have been baptized and do deny or doubt various Catholic dogmas, they typically do not do so out of bad faith (Latin, mala fide) and therefore do not meet the requirement of obstinately denying or doubting a dogma.

The requirement of bad faith obstinacy for heresy has been part of the Church’s understanding for a long time (cf. Code of Canon Law [1917] 1325 §2).

Thus the Second Vatican Council remarked: “The children who are born into these communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church embraces upon them as brothers, with respect and affection” (Unitatis Redintegratio 3).

Consequently, the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity indicated that people who were born Protestant did not need to make a formal abjuration of heresy upon becoming Catholic (Ecumenical Directory [1967] 19-20).

Thus Protestants are not typically referred to as heretics because they are not presumed to have committed the canonical crime of heresy.


From Celebration to Commemoration

As the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation approached, some in the Protestant community began to ask how it should be marked.

In light of the mutual re-assessments that had taken place, where both parties acknowledged each others good points and their own flaws, the previous kind of celebrations no longer seemed credible.

It would no longer do to one-sidedly portray Luther and his colleagues as glorious heroes against dark-hearted and devilish Catholic villains.

Further, one thing both groups could agree on is that something tragic happened at the time of the Reformation: It was a great rending of Christendom that did not correspond to Christ’s desire for Christian unity and that, if mortal men had acted correctly, would not have happened.

Protestants and Catholic might hold differing views about who was at fault—and many would say there was plenty of fault on both sides—but both could recognize an enormous tragedy as having occurred.

So if the kind of “rah-rah” cheerleading style of celebration wasn’t what was called for, what should the first centennial of the Reformation in the ecumenical age look like?

And who should be involved?

Some in the Protestant community made a striking proposal: It should include Catholics.

The Reformation affected all of western Christendom, and now that Catholics and Protestants again regarded each other as brothers, a way needed to be found that the two communities could mark the occasion together.

This meant holding not a celebration of the Reformation but a commemoration.


Remembering Together

To commemorate an event means to remember it together (from the Latin, cum = “together” and memorare = “to remember”).

Catholics could not properly celebrate the Reformation—which involved a grave wound to Christian unity—but they could remember and honestly assess the event with their Protestant brethren.

And so both Protestant and Catholic churchmen approached their leaders and asked if it was possible to find a way for the two communities to jointly remember—not celebrate—the event.

In the Lutheran community, that meant getting the approval of the Lutheran World Federation. And in the Catholic community, it meant the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity developing proposals that would ultimately have to be approved by the pope.


What’s a Pope to Do?

Some might think that any kind of joint commemoration of the Reformation is a bad idea, but put yourself in the position of the pope and ask what the alternative is.

Maintaining frosty silence?

Meeting requests for a joint commemoration with firm denials?

Answering press queries by saying, “The Reformation was a horrible tragedy and Martin Luther was an arch-heretic and a historical villain of enormous proportions?”

The fundamental question that confronts every pontiff is how to ensure the good of the Christian community, for Christ made Peter the chief shepherd of his Church, and that means his successors have the chief responsibility for promoting the unity among Christians that he willed.

That means that, when approaching the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, the pope will not be looking to reinforce old divisions but to find a way to encourage Christian unity.

Thus, though joint commemoration is a delicate prospect that undoubtedly involves some discomfort, the fundamental orientation of a pope would be to look for a way to bring something positive out of the occasion.

And it’s easy to see what some of the desired elements for such a commemoration would be:

  • That it not be a triumphant celebration of the Reformation
  • That it involve our joint profession of the Christian Faith
  • That it invoke our common Christian patrimony
  • That it involve prayer for forgiveness of the wrongs committed by both groups
  • And that it ask the Lord for future growth in the Christian unity he wills

Not surprisingly, these were exactly the factors Benedict XVI named in speaking of the forthcoming event.


Benedict XVI on the Joint Commemoration

On January 24, 2011, Pope Benedict gave an address to delegates of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany in which he spoke of the 2017 joint commemoration. He said:

Today ecumenical dialogue can no longer be separated from the reality and the faith life of our Churches without harming them.

Thus, let us turn our gaze together to the year 2017, which recalls the posting of Martin Luther’s theses on Indulgences 500 years ago.

On that occasion, Lutherans and Catholics will have the opportunity to celebrate throughout the world a common ecumenical commemoration, to strive for fundamental questions at the global level, not—as you yourself have just said—in the form of a triumphant celebration, but as a common profession of our faith in the Triune God, in common obedience to Our Lord and to his Word.

We must give an important place to common prayer and to interior prayer addressed to our Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of mutual wrongs and for culpability relative to the divisions.

Part of this purification of conscience is the mutual exchange appraising the 1,500 years that preceded the Reformation, and which we therefore have in common.

For this reason we wish to implore together, constantly, the help of God and the assistance of the Holy Spirit in order to take further steps towards the longed-for unity and not to be satisfied with the results we have achieved so far.


Arrival of the Anniversary

In preparation for the anniversary, there have already been a number of concrete forms of commemoration.

Thus on October 31, 2016—the beginning of the anniversary year—Pope Francis participated in an ecumenical prayer service in Sweden with representatives of the Lutheran World Federation.

On that occasion, he said: “As Catholics and Lutherans, we have undertaken a common journey of reconciliation. Now, in the context of the commemoration of the Reformation of 1517, we have a new opportunity to accept a common path, one that has taken shape over the past fifty years in the ecumenical dialogue between the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church.

“Nor can we be resigned to the division and distance that our separation has created between us. We have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another.”

Additional commemorations are scheduled at events throughout 2017, and especially on October 31.

Most of these will be of brief duration, and they will largely echo themes that have already been explored.

The most substantial common statement on the anniversary, however, is a preparatory document that appeared in 2013.

Then, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation issued a document titled From Conflict to Communion: The Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017.

It is available on the Vatican’s web site, and it is the most informative joint reflection on the anniversary of the Reformation, the history that ensued, and where Catholics and Lutherans stand today.

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Dave September 8, 2017 at 5:37 am

I am glad that the churches are working hard at unity. However, it remains true, in my opinion at least, that the division in the Church was the worst event in human history. Not only did it emaciate the witness of the Church, but it has also led to the near (as of this writing, only near) destruction of Western Civilization; the principles of private judgment, secularism, and relativism have eroded much.

SDG September 12, 2017 at 1:15 pm

Dave, I agree that the splitting of Western Christendom at the Protestant Reformation was one of the worst events in human history. Did you know that many Protestants also view it as a tragedy?

Here’s a Protestant theologian saying “We all lost in the Reformation.” He is far from alone in this among Protestants.

We Catholics, for our part, can acknowledge that Catholic leaders at the time of the Reformation and prior to it share in the responsibility for this tragedy.

Reformation was certainly needed, and was underway at the time of what became the Protestant Reformation, along with what has misleadingly been called the “Counter-Reformation,” but is more accurately called the Catholic Reformation. (“Counter-Reformation” is a misnomer because it’s not like the Protestant Reformation happened first and then the Catholic Church did something solely in response to, and counter to, the Protestant Reformation. Reformation was already underway in the Catholic Church, and continued alongside, and partly paralleling, though also partly in reaction to, the Protestant Reformation.)

ADAM September 8, 2017 at 3:15 pm

Blessed John Henry Newman in search of a paradigm to depict his Protestant experience of uncovenanted graces as a non-Catholic focused on the Samaritans – the woman at the well, the thankful leper, and of course the Good Samaritan. Too, in their pre-history as the separated Northern Kingdom of Israel in rebellion against the established true worship at Jerusalem, Newman observed that nevertheless true prophets Elijah and Elisha were sent to this rival religion to denounce idolatry in their midst, yet without demanding a return to Jerusalem. It was enough to begin with the mission of purification according to the principle of economy (Disciplina arcani), a favorite theme of Newman and the Church Fathers.

The Masked Chicken September 13, 2017 at 8:33 am

“We Catholics, for our part, can acknowledge that Catholic leaders at the time of the Reformation and prior to it share in the responsibility for this tragedy.”

While this may be true, there have been many other periods of discord within the Church prior to the late Medieval period and none of those lead to such an upheaval as to rend away whole countries from the Church. By definition, every heresy is a fracturing off from the Church, but the Protestant heresy was of larger scope because of the chaffing of royal houses from the interference of the Church in civil affairs and, simultaneously, the desire of some monarchs to control local Church affairs. This, combined with the weakening power if the Pope, due to the Avignon captivity and the rise of Conciliarism, lead to civil authorities shielding the early Protestants and, actually, giving them aid and comfort as a way to break the hold of the Church. If there had been a centralized papacy, the monarchies could have been put under interdict and people like Luther turned over to ecclesial authorities for trial. It would have, quickly, shut down the Protestant heresy.

The Protestant Reformation was as much about greed as it was anything else – greedy monarchs, greedy churchmen, greedy laity. The only reason the Protestant Reformation could get as far as it did was because of the inner weakening of the Church.

Fast forward 500 years and the Church is in an eerily similar situation, with civil leaders trying to dictate policies to the Church and the Church being in a very weakened position with regards to its influence on society, as well as a growing lack of clarity in its moral teachings, and a growing type of conciliarism, as witnessed by the the recent Motu Proprio. If the Church is to commemorate the Reformation, it should do so knowing full well that it is a ghost of past mistakes that are being revisited in a much more dangerous modern climate. Santayana was partially wrong. It is not that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it, for, history never truly simply repeats itself. Rather, unstudied history, when it repeats, returns with compound interest and almost always with the latest update to evil.

The Chicken

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