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Remembering the Reformation—Together

Jimmy Akin

In 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 began . . .

According to legend, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenburg, Germany. 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 came to define the Protestant movement. In fact, he didn’t mention the concept of justification. 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 Protestant community held particularly notable celebrations for the centennial anniversaries in 1617, 1717, 1817, and 1917.

Now that we’ve arrived at the 500th anniversary, 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.

Protestants should have a big party—a celebration of Luther and his colleagues as saviors (small “s”) 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 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 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 improvement.

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, 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 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 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. In fact, we’re usually allies.

“That they may be one”

Along with 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 creates a barrier to the spread of the gospel, and this came to weigh 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 old hostilities and to begin rebuilding the unity we had lost.

This put the approaching 500th anniversary of the Reformation in a new light.

“What unites us”

As Christians began to move closer together, they began a mutual reexamination and reappraisal.

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 Holy Scripture as the inspired word of God, and in numerous additional truths.

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

Purification of memory

Preparing for the Jubilee Year 2000, Pope 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 under way. The mutual Catholic-Protestant reassessment 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 that needed of reform. That’s why there was 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 celebration to commemoration

As the 500th anniversary of the Reformation approached, some in the Protestant community began to ask how it should be marked. In light of the mutual reassessments that had taken place, wherein both parties acknowledged the other’s good points and their own flaws, the previous kind of celebrations no longer seemed credible.

It would no longer do to 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 would not have happened if men had acted correctly.

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 that an enormous tragedy occurred. So if a “rah-rah,” cheerleading-style celebration wasn’t 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, the two communities needed to find a way to 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, meaning “together” and memorare, meaning “to remember”). Catholics could not 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 the pope would have to approve.

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. 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 Christ willed. That means that, when approaching the 500th 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
  • That it ask the Lord for future growth in the Christian unity he wills

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

Arrival of the anniversary

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

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, 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 is a preparatory document that appeared four years ago. In 2013, 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.

Available on the Vatican’s website, 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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