Luther rehabilitated? Catholics and Protestants disagree
Among Catholic-Protestant splits on display during Pope Benedict’s visit to Germany is a disagreement over whether Martin Luther, the 16th century reformer who launched the split in western Christianity, has now been rehabilitated.
Pope Leo X cast Luther out of the Roman Catholic Church in 1521 with a vociferous decree branding him “the slave of a depraved mind” and calling his followers a “pernicious and heretical sect.” But his present-day successor, Benedict, spoke so positively of Luther’s deep faith during a visit to the monk’s old monastery in Erfurt on Friday that Germany’s top Protestant bishop announced Luther had effectively been rehabilitated.
“Luther has experienced a de facto rehabilitation today through this appreciation of his work,” Bishop Nikolaus Schneider, head of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), announced to journalists on Friday after talks with Benedict. “We heard this very clearly from the mouth of the pope,” he said. “What follows now formally is another question … but that’s not so important for me.”
Vatican spokesman Rev Federico Lombardi begged to differ on Saturday. “To say that would be exaggerated,” he told journalists in Freiburg, the last stop on the pope’s four-day tour of his homeland. “What this is about is having deep faith and I think it emphasises the commonalities we have in our love of faith.”
What happened 490 years ago is taking on new significance in Germany because Protestants here are preparing to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses of 1517, the manifesto of dissent that eventually led to the Reformation. The Protestants would like Catholics to say Luther was not a heretic but a major Christian theologian. “It would be nice if they could declare him a doctor of the Church,” Erfurt’s Lutheran Bishop Ilse Junkermann told Reuters.
A German, Benedict is the first pope who has read Luther, knows Lutherans well and appreciates what he sees as his positive aspects — his deep faith, his focus on Jesus, his emphasis on the Bible and his mastery of the German language. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope also played a key role in a 1999 Catholic-Lutheran accord saying they no longer disagreed on some complex theological issues Luther raised and lifting anathemas (denunciations) the two sides hurled at each other back then.
Schneider said some give and take would be needed on both sides to come to an agreement by 2017. For example, he said his church would not present Luther as “an untouchable hero who never did anything wrong.” It is not clear whether the Vatican, which does not like to officially undo the work of a previous pope, can or will go as far as actually rehabilitating Luther.
Some Lutherans bristle at the very idea of rehabilitation, saying they don’t need a Vatican stamp of approval.
Vatican officials have suggested in the past that no official rehabilitation was needed because the ban expired at Luther’s death. “One cannot do anything for Martin Luther now because Martin Luther, wherever he is, is not worried about these condemnations,” Cardinal Edward Cassidy, then the Vatican’s top ecumenical official, said in 1999.
Schneider said he had not yet invited the pope to join the 2017 commemorations. “I have not reached that point, but I invited (Benedict) to take a different view of our celebration as one of the power of the Gospel and the theology of God,” he said.