From Conflict to Communion: Observing the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (1517-2017)

Bishop Michael Rinehart

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic priest, professor, and Augustinian brother, allegedly posted 95 theses, or propositions, for debate on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. They chiefly concerned what amounted to the sale of indulgences, a grant of pardon from temporal punishment of sin.

Depictions of Luther defiantly posting the theses on the Wittenberg door are certainly overblown propaganda. Most likely the theses were mailed. There was nothing unusual about having debates at the university. In fact, just months prior, one of Luther’s colleagues had also posted theses for debate of indulgences.

The posting of these theses, however, sparked a sequence of events we now call the Reformation, not just a split in the church, but a reordering of Western society and politics. In 2017, two years from now, we will arrive at the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 theses – half a millennium since the start of the Reformation. How shall we commemorate this anniversary and with what spirit? Will this commemoration advance the proclamation of the gospel? Will it promote ecumenical dialog? Or will it be an opportunity to resurrect old polemics and animosities? Will it drive a wedge between and already fragmented Christianity?

I would like to share a few personal experiences, a little bit about the Lutheran–Catholic dialogs, then the vision of From Conflict to Communion, for a common commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. At the bottom of this article is a little bit of history for those who would like to read further.

My Experience

While some Protestants have been known to demonize the Catholics and the Pope, and some Catholics have been known to brand Luther and Protestants as heretics, I did not grow up in that kind of environment. My dad was a Lutheran pastor who had a cordial relationship with the local Catholic priest. I had Catholic and Protestant friends. We visited each other’s churches. My parents taught me a deep respect for the whole church, including the Roman Catholic Church.

The seminary I attended, Trinity Lutheran seminary in Columbus, Ohio, had a relationship with both the Josephinum Pontifical College, run directly by the Vatican, and the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. We were expected to take classes at one or both of these seminaries, to broaden our theological and ecumenical minds. I actually took reformation theology at the Josephinum with Father Cooney, who helped us young Lutherans see the reformation from a Roman Catholic angle of vision. I took spiritual direction from a wise old nun while there and traveled to Cuernavaca, Mexico with two sisters and two men, studying for the priesthood. We learned Spanish together, debated theology, and threw back not a few Negra Modelos.

In my first call I worshiped occasionally at a midweek service in the local Roman Catholic Church. The young priest showed me warm hospitality.

As bishop I have enjoyed collegial relationships with Archbishop Joe Fiorenza in Houston and then Archbishop Daniel Cardinal DiNardo. Though I live in the Houston area, our synod also includes congregations in southern Louisiana. Archbishop Gregory Aymond has also been an open, friendly ecumenical partner. Our synod has held worship in the Roman Catholic Cathedral in New Orleans, at which Archbishop Alfred Hughes gracefully asked us not to nail anything to the doors. Last year Archbishop Aymond met with six Lutheran bishops from this region to discuss the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

I sit on the Board of Directors for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. LIRS is the second largest resettler of refugees in the United States. Guess who is the first? The US Conference of Catholic Bishops. LIRS does its work through local service providers. Guess who LIRS has chosen as their local service provider here? Catholic Charities, because their work is outstanding. If we are really feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger, then we serve by need not by creed. We have to stop playing denominational king of the hill.

So, you see, what the media often portrays as a huge rift between Lutherans and Catholics is not what it seems. Lutherans and Catholics have nearly identical statements on immigration, detention, and family reunification. We agree on much theologically. We have the past 50 years of continuous Lutheran-Catholic dialogs. The Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity have discovered remarkable agreement on baptism, Eucharist, and other key issues. These agreements led to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, signed on October 31, 1999 by both Lutheran and Catholic leaders, states:

Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.

The bilateral dialogs revealed areas in which there is still considerable disagreement. Among these are celibacy, ordination of women, and the authority of Rome. The goal of these dialogs is not merger or institutional amalgamation. The goal is to be a witness to the underlying unity of the body of Christ in spite of our differences. As Pope John XXIII said so well,

The things that unite us are greater than those that divide us.

—Pope John XXIII

We remember how fervently Jesus prayed for the unity of the church:

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 

—John 17:20-23

Jesus prays for the unity of the church “so that the world may believe.” That needs to be our approach. How will this broken and violent world hear Christ’s word of hope and love if Christians are spending all their energy fighting with each other?

From Conflict to Communion

from conflict to communionFrom Conflict to Communion is a 93-page report, the result of work by The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU). It proposes that Catholic and Lutheran Christians look back on events that occurred 500 years earlier by putting the gospel of Jesus Christ at the center. It also suggests that Lutherans and Catholics approach this anniversary with repentance, not mutual condemnation.

A joint liturgy will be published later this year.

The first of Luther’s 95 Theses says:

When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent,” He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

This opening statement of Luther’s 95 Theses from 1517, which triggered the Reformation movement, is a worthy place to start. What if we approached the 500th anniversary of the Reformation with repentance instead of arrogance? Would this not be in keeping with Jesus’ teaching?

Lutherans can begin by confessing Luther’s racist and anti-Semitic remarks toward the end of his life. We can confess Luther’s vulgar, acerbic, and unyielding rhetoric. Calling the Pope the Anti-Christ doesn’t tend to foster open dialog and hopeful reconciliation. Do you see how this changes the conversation? Instead of pointing out the speck in my neighbor’s eye, I instead confess and begin working on the log in my own eye.

Historically the Reformation was commemorated by Lutherans and Catholics recounting their divergent narratives of events, and rehearsing mutual anathemas. This rarely bears fruit. A better approach begins with all of us confessing our hubris, our party-allegiances, the sins of the church, and the tendency to demonize the other and talk past one another.

Retelling the history

There is only one history, and yet Lutherans and Catholics have told that history quite differently. Have you ever had two warring parties recount events so differently that you wondered if they were describing the same events?

History can be told many ways. History is big. Our biases are revealed in which parts of the history we choose to tell and which parts we choose to leave out.

Twentieth century scholarship has caused us to revise our understanding of the Late Medieval Period.

It is time to abandon one-sided Protestant or Catholic historiographies. Can we tell the story of the Reformation in ways that are grounded in the most salient facts, ways that satisfy both Protestant and Catholic historians, because they don’t warp the realities?

Chapter 3 of From Conflict to Communion does just that. In 16 pages, a history of the Reformation is sketched out for us, prepared by Lutherans and Catholics together. This alone is worth the read. We must learn to tell the story of the Reformation in this way.

Five Ecumenical Imperatives, From Conflict to Communion

  1. The first imperative: Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division, in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced.
  2. The second imperative: Lutherans and Catholics must let themselves continuously be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of faith.
  3. The third imperative: Catholics and Lutherans should again commit themselves to seek visible unity, to elaborate together what this means in concrete steps, and to strive repeatedly toward this goal.
  4. The fourth imperative: Lutherans and Catholics should jointly rediscover the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for our time.
  5. The fifth imperative: Catholics and Lutherans should witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.

Some Local Recommendations

In keeping with the recommendations of From Conflict to Communion, Cardinal DiNardo and I have both appointed leaders to plan together our common commemoration in Houston. I propose we do the same in New Orleans. Conversations have begun around several possibilities, which I humbly offer to all Christians, not just Lutherans and Catholics.

  1. Worship. I propose a joint ecumenical worship service held sometime the week before October 31. The service of the word would include confession and absolution. It might include a foot washing. Singing and praying together. I don’t propose changing our worship times for this. It’s impractical, creating more problems than it solves. Saturdays and Sundays are problematic for big Catholic Churches. I would encourage careful planning, in consultation with the bishops and church leaders here, and of course, the Saints’ schedule. This could be a signal to the press and to the world, that we have more interest in proclaiming a message of hope to the world than fighting amongst ourselves.
  2. Clergy Gathering.Our pastors need to become friends, to lower walls of suspicion and counter the old narratives. It starts with the leaders. Perhaps in 2016 we gather clergy around From Conflict to Communion.
  3. Education. In Houston we are discussing a possible symposium at The University of St. Thomas on Lutheran-Catholic dialogs and the Reformation, with both Catholic and Protestant scholars. If we bring in these folks, it might be possible to arrange to have them come to Loyola as well. Loyola also has some fine theologians who could present.
  4. The B Minor mass written for the Catholic King of Saxony by a Protestant composer, J.S. Bach. The Houston Bach Society is working on this. I wonder if there are musical possibilities in New Orleans that lift up the music of the Reformation.
  5. Youth Service Event. What if we did a citywide youth service day in New Orleans, Houston, and other areas? Let the world see Christians serving the world together, ignoring denominational boundaries.
  6. These are just some suggestions. We have discussed others. One possibility is a pilgrimage to Rome and Wittenberg. Catholics and Lutherans traveling together, learning together, eating together, and building bridges. This could be a life changing experience. There may be other possibilities.

However we commemorate, let’s do it together, as a sign of this new atmosphere of ecumenism and global awareness. Let us commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in such a way that the world might know Jesus, believing we have life in his name.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

—Ephesians 4:4-6

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