Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Reform, Not Revolt

I was somewhat taken aback to read this on Wikipedia, in the entry on ‘The Protestant Reformation’: ‘The Protestant Reformation, also known as the Protestant Revolt, was a 16th century split within Western Christianity, and was initiated by Martin Luther’ [italics mine].

The Protestant Revolt? I have to say I’ve never seen the Reformation referred to as a ‘Revolt’ in modern scholarly literature, certainly not the Lutheran Reformation, which was marked by its conservatism (the best defences of the conservative nature of the Lutheran Reformation is Charles Porterfield Krauth's 'The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology' (1871), available in reprint through Concordia Publishing House). I suspect what we have here is an attempt by a zealous Roman Catholic editor to revive the tone of the anti-Luther Roman polemics of a previous era (imagine that, polemics on the internet!). Given that Wiki is probably the most consulted reference work on this or any topic today (especially by lazy students and bloggers!) the sympathetic reader will understand my consternation at this grievous misrepresentation.

It was the leading 20th century Roman Catholic historian on Luther and the Reformation, Joseph Lortz, who largely overcame the completely negative (and slanderous) view of Luther that had pertained under the papacy since the Reformation. While critical in his overall judgment of Luther, Lortz acknowledged that Luther was a devout Christian and that many of his concerns were valid even from a Roman Catholic viewpoint. Lortz also pointed out how many of Luther’s major exegetical and theological insights were consistent with the medieval tradition. We’ll come back to Lortz in a moment; before we do, here are some modern Roman Catholic appraisals of Luther:

‘The Roman Catholic Church today accepts that there was the need of reform most obvious in the exaggerated practice of indulgences [which] by the Middle Ages ... had been vulgarized to include remission of punishment in purgatory and even remission of sins themselves.’ Michael Glazier and Monika K. Hellwig, eds. The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2004), p. 506.

‘We have much to learn from Luther beginning with the importance he attached to the word of God…In the light of Christ the Catholic will no longer wish to regard Luther as an apostate monk who broke faith with his Church. He will recognize the many lights in his character....the holy defiance with which, as God's warrior, he faced abuse and simony; the heroism with which he risked his life for Christ's cause; and not least the natural simplicity and child-like quality of his whole manner of life and personal piety.’ Cardinal Walter Kasper

‘It is widely recognized that Luther was justified in attempting to reform the theology and abuses in the Church of his time and that his fundamental belief - justification given to us by Christ without any merit on our part - does not in any way contradict genuine Catholic tradition, such as is found for example, in St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.’ Karl Adam

‘Today many Catholic scholars think Luther was right in his central doctrine of justification by faith and the [sixteenth century Catholic] church was blind to the point he was making...Both Lutherans and Catholics agree that good works by Christian believers are the result of their faith and the working of divine grace in them, not their personal contributions to their own salvation. Christ is the only Savior. One does not save oneself... Luther's doctrine of justification by faith needs to be recognized and endorsed as an expression of the perennial Catholic tradition.’ George Tavard

‘Although the Reformation ended up causing a tragic split in Western Christendom, such a development was neither intended nor desired by Luther. His emphasis on justification by faith alone, the total dependence of each human being on the grace of God in order to attain salvation, and the central role of the Bible in Christian belief and practice, all had a transforming impact on Protestant -- and ultimately on Catholic -- orthodoxy and orthopraxy.’ Rev. Robert Scully, SJ, assistant professor of history at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York

‘Oddly enough, Luther was a Roman Catholic when the Reformation began and he had every intention of staying one. He wanted to reform the church to which he belonged….Luther insisted upon the importance of Scripture and its central place in Christian life, a point not recognized by the Council of Trent but accepted by Vatican II…Luther encouraged Bible reading by the laity, as did Vatican II. He also insisted that Protestant clergy be educated, and the Council of Trent recognized the importance of this by establishing the seminary system in 1563, only after educated Western Europeans noticed how well-trained the Protestants were.’ Joseph F. Kelly, professor of religious studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio.


But it’s not quite Roman bouquets all round for Luther; the present Pope is on the record as saying - when he was Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and thus responsible for disciplining erring theologians - that Luther’s ecclesiology in particular would be cause for investigation by his office today. Bear in mind that Luther’s ecclesiology is intimately related to the doctrines of justification and scripture and we realise that, despite the advances made in the 20th century towards a more sympathetic understanding of Luther and the Reformation on the part of Roman Catholic scholars, officially Luther is still very much ‘outside the camp’. Which is where he is likely to remain, given the problematic state of world Lutheranism and the shift of Rome’s ecumenical focus towards dialogue with the Eastern churches. As this shift is consolidated, I expect we'll see a decreased openness on the part of Rome to Luther's evangelical critique and a consequent winding back of some of the better reforms of Vatican II, which could arguably be traced to an attentive listening to Luther's voice. Personally, I've never been overly optimistic about the possibilities of ecumenical rapprochement with Rome, but for anyone who considered that at least some of what happened in Rome during and after Vatican II was the result of the impact of the Gospel via Luther, this is not a happy development. But it is not all bad - I expect it will also strengthen the witness of confessional Lutheranism and disabuse some on the ecumenical wing of Lutheranism of the notion that Rome can fundamentally change.

Before concluding this reflection, I can’t avoid addressing the oft-repeated claim that Luther destroyed the unity of the Western church, which is still heaped with opprobrium upon Lutheran heads today. That charge is based on two assumptions: 1) a historical assumption that the church was unified prior to the Reformation, and 2) a theological assumption that the church’s unity can in fact be broken. We’ll leave the latter assumption for another post, but here’s one point of objection to the first assumption from the above-mentioned Roman Catholic scholar Joseph Lortz, who wrote this about the state of the church in the centuries prior to Luther:
‘The real significance of the Western Schism [i.e. a period of c. 40 years in the late 14th and early 15th centuries when there were two rival claimants to the papal throne - MH) rests in the fact that for decades there was an almost universal uncertainty about where the true pope and the true Church were to be found. For several decades, both popes had excommunicated each other and his followers; thus all Christendom found itself under sentence of excommunication by at least one of the contenders. Both popes referred to their rival claimant as the Antichrist, and to the Masses celebrated by them as idolatry. It seemed impossible to do anything about this scandalous situation, despite sharp protests from all sides, and despite the radical impossibility of having two valid popes at the same time. Time and time again, the petty selfishness of the contenders blocked any solution.
The split caused by the Western Schism was far from being merely the concern of theologians; no area of public or private life remained untouched; even the economic sphere was affected, mainly because of disputes in regard to the possession of benefices. Provinces of the Church, religious orders, universities, even individual monasteries and parish houses were divided. For decades, all experienced this profound division in all sectors of daily life. Good people on both sides, even saints, were not only unable to bring about unity, but in their allegiance to one or the other of the contenders they themselves were in sharp opposition. We find, for example, St. Catherine of Siena on the Roman side and St. Vincent Ferrer on that of Avignon. Furthermore, the settlement of the Schism at the Council of Constance did not really solve the problem. The triumph of the Conciliar Theory at Constance, and even more at Basel, extended the life span of the Schism from 1378 to 1448, when it finally came to an end in the person of the Antipope Felix V. The confusion and uncertainty about the valid pope and the true Church is manifest in the amazing twists in the allegiance of Nicolaus of Cusa and Aeneas Silvio dei Piccolomini, later to become Pius II, both of whom had begun by defending the Conciliar Theory in its most radical form.
This was an experience shared by the entire West — one which would leave its imprint in Western consciousness for a long time to come. The memory of this experience was still fresh a century later. It is not too difficult to see the effects of the Western Schism in preparing the way for the doctrines of the Reformation. When Luther asserted that the pope of Rome was not the true successor of Saint Peter and that the Church could do without the Papacy, in his mind and in their essence these were new doctrines, but the distinctive element in them was not new and thus they struck a sympathetic resonance in the minds of many. Long before the Reformation itself, the unity of the Christian Church in the West had been severely undermined.’

Joseph Lortz, The Reformation, A Problem for Today (The Newman Press, Maryland, 1964) pp. 35-37.


The Eastern schism of 1054 surely also had a deep effect on the psyche of Western Christendom. It's noteworthy that the Lutheran confessors make several references to the practices of the 'Greek Church' to bolster their own criticisms of the Roman Mass.

9 comments:

Terry Maher said...

Lortz is just bloody out to lunch. The "Western Schism" is in no way a run-up to Luther, and happened precisely because there was NO question that the "Pope" is the successor to Peter and the office is indispensable to the church. Argument over who indeed is the true pope is not at all the same as argument over the validity of the papacy itself.

In my preconciliar RC education, the Reformation was called just that, the Protestant Revolt, and the real reformation was Trent. At the same time, we were taught that we have no-one but ourselves to blame for the "Reformation", that is was we who allowed such a state of across the board laxity to develop that protest against it was inevitable, and given that the laxity included priestly formation, as evident in Luther who would seem to not even know the Catholic faith on the level of a schoolboy making a good Confession, that valid protest against moral error would spill over into doctrinal error. The fault was ours, not Luther's.

The opinions cited are "Roman Catholic" only in that their authors are within the Roman Catholic Church, which will allow a very wide latitude as long as once does not buck or deny or step outside the RCC itself. Tavard in particular, a peritus at VII and a vocal advocate of WO.

There is no Roman rehabilitation of Luther, and what would appear to be some influence of Luther at Vatican II is entirely superficial and no impact of the Gospel at all. What the RCC did was reformulate its teaching and practice in terms of more modern though, specifically existentialism and phenomenology, rather then the scholastic formulae used for centuries, but the result is a miserable mish-mash, pitiful from either orthodox Catholic or orthodox Lutheran perspectives. Yet it has led many astray, and always in one direction, to Rome.

Attention will always be paid more to the Eastern Church than the Reformation, for exactly the reason where we began: the Eastern Church preserves valid sacraments, and the Catholic/Orthodox divide is a division within the church, a split, a schism, whereas the Reformation is a break from the church deprived of normative and structural elements Christ have to his church, and thus are not strictly speaking churches at all, but ecclesial unions, in which nonetheless elements of the Catholic Faith can exist sufficient for salvation.

You can pretty it all up verbally, but that's what it is.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

You sound like an ultra-Romanist, Terry. I thought you were LCMS?

Terry Maher said...

I am LCMS. I was RC. I am describing the RC pov in its own terms.

Aquinas always said if you are going to argue against something you have to be able to argue for it as well as its proponents do -- he's really a Benedictine you know, abbot of Monte Cassino was bought and paid for by the family, as these things are done -- not just as you see it from your own position. And, having been once a proponent of them, I think Lutherans generally see what they want to see in the postconciliar RCC and do not understand the internal agenda that VII addressed, which is not at all based on a Lutheran understanding.

David Cochrane said...

It would appear that our Romanists were the ones revolting in the excommunication of Luther. Don't you just love reconstructing of history?

I have had some of my Roman Church friends say Luther decided to leave and start his own church. As if it was all hugs and kisses at Worms. The Romanists told Luther; "Bub bye we gonna miss ya!"

And if grandma had wheels she would have been a car.

Stephen K said...

Pastor Mark, what Terry says about the RC view of the 16th century events is quite correct, and his characterisation of the reformulation of this in the V2 language was interesting.

This whole business of churches, schisms vs heresy etc is very lopsided and to some extent self-delusional. It is like a vehicle that starts off small and simple like a wooden chassis powered by pedal power. As it goes bits get added on, but equally bits fall off. Soon it's a large articulated vehicle, say a semi-trailer or seven container road-train. Bits still keep falling off but in 1054 it crashes and the left half of the front end sheers away with the loss of two rear trailers. In 1517 the right hand axle snaps and the tyre blows and another trailer disconnects. We see the wreckage all along the highway. The drivers in the cabin still insist they are the true and sufficient (i.e. "subsistent")truck because their remnant is the largest and all the others are break-aways of one sort or another; but to everyone else all that is left are disconnected chunks of metal and plastic of various sizes. There is in reality, no "truck" left.

It is futile and arrogant to claim anything as a break away or as the rock from which something has broken away. It depends on a partisan point of view. This is the reality of Christianity and the Church.It is busted and dispersed and no one can take the high moral ground or assert the unity that the universal love Jesus taught suggests and requires.
At least this is how it seems to me.

Terry Maher said...

The Romans are not rewriting history. They are looking at exactly the same history we do, and seeing something other than what we see. It is indeed a popular misconception among some Catholics that Luther left and started his own church. This is not nor has it ever been the position of the Roman Church.

That is one of the features of life as a Catholic than hardly anyone gets outside that life -- namely, that it isn't only dissent that is apart from the actual teaching of the Church, but also many who hold themselves faithful orthodox Catholics have very warped ideas about what the Church teaches to which they are supposedly so faithful.

Also it is important to understand what excommunication actually is in Roman terms. And, those terms are not altogether different than out own. Excommunication is not throwing someone out. It is a recognition that the person has already thrown himself out by his public actions, and this step is formally taken to publicly recognise that fact and impose censures that it is hoped will jar the person to repentance. Excommunication does not throw you out of the Church; you are still Catholic and still responsible for acting like one, but restricted from certain participations in the Church, depending on one's status (eg a priest may not administer the Sacraments or receive Communion, a lay person doesn't say Mass anyway but also can not receive Communion, but both are still obliged to attend).

Exxommunication is either latae sententiae (given sentence, ie automatic), which is the kind I have (I hope!) or ferendae sententiae (sentence to be passed), which the kind Luther had and is for grosser cases and adjudicated by the ordinary, typically a bishop up to and including the Bishop or Rome. A factor in Luther's time that is no longer used is whether excommunication is vitandus (to be avoided, aka shunning) or toleratus (you can still interact with the person).

So (in the RC mindset) a person excommunicates himself, the Church simply recognises that that is the case, in varying ways depending on the severity. In that sense, Luther indeed left the Church, but the Church did not leave him; his communion with it is broken by his own actions, but he remains Catholic though under censure in the hope of repentance.

Rome teaches enough error without ascribing to it error it does not teach.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Thanks Terry, Stephen & David.

It might help if I fill you in a bit on the context for this post and those like it here - I'm attempting to use respected Roman Catholic theologians as witnesses against an older Roman Catholic caricature of Luther that I have heard from the lips/pens of ex-Lutherans who've become 'more Catholic than the Pope' since their conversion.

Terry, I think you're quite right about the Roman Catholicism being a 'big tent'; I've always regarded the local Australian version as being the most liberal church body here. What is on paper as 'Catholic doctrine' and what is believed by laity and even priests (and bishops I shouldn't wonder) are often miles apart (I know, I talk to Catholic priests; an orthodox priest in the Roman sense is a rare bird indeed in these parts).

Terry Maher said...

Well Pastor, the situation isn't much different here in the Archdiocese of Omaha! Or apart from oases here and there, anywhere else.

Catholic is as Catholic does. That is romanitas at its essence: the Roman Empire had that characteristic long before it defined "Catholicism" as its state religion -- you were allowed, tacitly, whatever local divergence you like, as long as it does not buck the Empire. The Empire will endure, which becomes the Church will endure.

Well, the Empire is long gone. The Church is split East and West (just like the Empire) and in the West a Reformation happened, which itself split several times over, all of them not what the Lutheran Reformation intended or believed.

But the fantasy endures. One of the most intolerable features of life as an RC for me was to try to preserve that fantasy, to hang on to what is on paper, rejoice in the oases here and there, even think the tide is about to turn, or will eventually turn because the Empire, er, Church is what endures, despite what is supposed to be the living reality of authority and succession in the Church.

The irony is, it is that fantasy, that supposed enduring authority and succession, which draws many Lutherans and others, especially now in the more relaxed language of recent times, from the problems in the first churches. I went the other way. Does LCMS have problems? Oh hell yes. It's the worst synod in the world, except for all the others. But it is quite a different thing when those problems are not a reality set against a fantasy of authority and succession that endures that is supposed to be the reality.

Stephen K said...

Once again, Terry makes an important point: namely, that official RC teaching is that all the baptised, including heretics and schismatics, are members of the Church, though it distinguishes the latter by saying they are deprived of only membership "rights" i.e. benefits, but continue to be subject to membership "duties" (Tanquerey, Dogmatic Theology I, at 269-270). Augustin Card. Bea, in his 1961 speech on Unity, printed in "The Unity of Christians", Chapman 1963, says of "separated brethren" that "in virtue of baptism they are subjects and members of the Church. And this effect of baptism is not removed by heresy or schism" (p.32)

So much for the official attitude: what is the reality in praxis? Once again, the goalposts are seen to be shifting. “The Church” in this context bears the meaning the universal church “of Christ” - which happens to be the RC Church. Thus even the official rhetoric is undermined by what I see as a “sectarian” understanding, which appears to operate in two ways. First, heretics etc are not members of their own churches because their baptism makes them members of the one church and their own churches are not legitimate churches anyway; second, and contradictorily, heretics etc are not Catholics and should not use the name. This latter understanding is what drives the orthodox conservatives within the modern RC Church to attack liberals, modernists and “dissenters” as non-Catholic. The way I see it the root of this apparent self-contradiction is the notion that the “Church of Christ” subsists” in the RC Church, or as Tanquerey would put it: The Roman-Catholic Church and this Church alone is the true Church of Christ” (ibid. at 229)
So, as you say, Pastor Mark, the reality is truly that there is a dissonance between the prima facie terms of the RC teaching about its membership and what many, not all, actually think about it all. My point was simply that Christianity is very much a broken vessel. The piece with the handle is just another piece, albeit larger. And even that is subject to argument. If tomorrow people woke up with a universal amnesia, not knowing anything about their former allegiances and understandings - imagine the Pope waking up wondering what he was doing - where would “the Church” be, and who would it contain?