A Pope Confronts the Reformation

Ray Waddle

Pope Francis has used a remarkable series of public gatherings to speak about the Reformation anniversary, counting the costs of the catastrophic break with Protestants but also regarding it as a prelude to future Christian unity someday, somehow.

“We must look with love and honesty at our past, recognizing error and seeking forgiveness, for God alone is our judge,” he said last year in Lund, Sweden, at a gathering of the Lutheran World Federation.

At different venues, Francis has faulted both sides for the conflict, praised Protestant contributions to theology, spelled out key difference that remain, and stressed common Catholic-Protestant ties such as baptism and the call to share the gospel with the world.

The rupture in the Western church happened when an ancient yearning for Christian unity, “the primordial intuition of God’s people,” was frustrated by powerful forces religious and secular. At pivotal moments, he says, fear trumped faith on all sides.

“Certainly, there was a sincere will on the part of both sides to profess and uphold the true faith, but at the same time we realize that we closed in on ourselves out of fear or bias with regard to the faith which others profess with a different accent and language,” he said at Lund.

He credited the Reformation for giving greater centrality to sacred Scripture. Luther’s agonized quest for redemption clarified an important truth.

“The spiritual experience of Martin Luther challenges us to remember that apart from God we can do nothing. ‘How can I get a propitious God?’ This is the question that haunted Luther. In effect, the question of a just relationship with God is the decisive question for our lives.”

At a scholars’ gathering this year in Rome, Francis said sustained dialogue provides a “purification of memory” that burns away old resentments and distortions in order to tell history afresh.

“An attentive and rigorous study, free of prejudice and polemics, enables the churches, now in dialogue, to discern and receive all that was positive and legitimate in the Reformation, while distancing themselves from errors, extremes and failures, and acknowledging the sins that led to the division,” the pope told the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences.

Roman Catholic representatives has been in separate dialogue with Protestant denominations for decades, including Methodist, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Anglican.

Serious obstacles to unity remain with various Protestant bodies – whether over the ordination of women, the ordination of LGBTQ individuals, samesex marriage, the nature of church authority, shared eucharist, or the power of the papacy.

“While, like our predecessors, we ourselves do not yet see solutions to the obstacles before us, we are undeterred,” the pope said last year in a joint statement with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.

“Wider and deeper than our differences are the faith that we share and our common joy in the gospel. Christ prayed that his disciples may all be one, ‘so that the world might believe’ (John 17: 21).”

Francis and Welby said Christians must act together to end environmental destruction, defend human dignity, and advocate for education, healthcare, food, clean water, and other acts of mercy.

“As disciples of Christ we hold human persons to be sacred, and as apostles of Christ we must be their advocates.”

– Ray Waddle

Sources: Catholic News Service, Lutheran World Federation, Episcopal News Service

A Brief Timeline of Reformation History

  • 1517 – Luther circulates 95 Theses on Christian faith and church abuses
  • 1521 – Luther is excommunicated by Pope Leo X
  • 1526 – William Tyndale translates the New Testament into English
  • 1534 – Henry VIII becomes head of the church in England
  • 1536 – John Calvin publishes the Institutes of the Christian Religion
  • 1545 – The Council of Trent begins, marking the Catholic Counter-Reformation
  • 1611 – The King James Version of the Bible is produced
  • 1618 – The Thirty Years’ War ignites
  • 1620 – The first English Puritans land in the New World
  • 1667 – The first version of Milton’s Paradise Lost is published
  • 1720 – Jonathan Edwards graduates from Yale
  • 1727 – Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is first performed
  • 1738 – John and Charles Wesley are converted in England
  • 1730s-40s – The First Great Awakening revival moves through the American colonies