Honouring Luther?

Someone pointed me to today’s post on The Tablet‘s website. Gosh, it’s awful.

Some quotes to give you the flavour of what is so awful:

Pope Francis today praised Martin Luther in what were the most positive remarks made yet by a pontiff about a man excommunicated following his attempts to root out abuses within the Catholic Church…

Luther, who was an Augustinian friar, wanted to end the Church’s practice of selling indulgences stressing that Christians found salvation through faith not works: his ideas got him excommunicated by Pope Leo X, led to religious wars and the founding of Protestant churches…

But while Luther’s theological complaints have been ironed out in recent decades, divisions between Catholics and Lutherans still exist, mainly over gays and women’s ordination. The Catholic Church officially remains resolutely opposed to female priests although the Pope today embraced Archbishop Antje Jackelén, the leader of the Lutheran church in Sweden. 

The divisions between the churches mean that Catholics and Lutherans are prevented from receiving communion in one another’s churches, although Francis has shown an openness to Lutherans married to Catholics being admitted to the eucharist…

Francis wore a simple red stole during the service and processed in behind a specially designed two metre high Salvadoran Cross which deputed (sic) God as “creative, reconciling and sanctifying.”

The heavyweights, like Fr Z, will no doubt parse, fisk and debunk the article methodically. Yet the howlers in this cry to heaven for vengeance.

  1. Luther was “a man excommunicated following his attempts to root out abuses within the Catholic Church”. Really? Somehow I was under the impression that he was excommunicated for his 95 Theses, which were admittedly prompted by abuses. But, for example, thesis 20—”Therefore the pope, when he uses the words ‘plenary remission of all penalties,’ does not actually mean ‘all penalties,’ but only those imposed by himself”—is a denial of the theology of the treasury of merit and the papal role in dispensing it. He was excommunicated because, however noble his original intentions may have been, he went too far. But this article seeks to convey the impression that Luther was a whistleblower punished for speaking out.
  2. Luther denied the efficacy of good works in the economy of salvation, seeing them as having sign value rather than salvific efficacy of themselves. His views on sanctification are not Catholic. When the Epistle of St James clearly contradicted him, he called it an “epistle of straw”. This is a mark of the heretic: when an authority contradicts him, that authority must be wrong, not him. So much for his novel dogma of sola scriptura.
  3. Luther’s theological complaints have not “been ironed out”. There has been a rapprochement on the matter of justification, from which it can be reasonably argued that Luther railed against a distorted caricature of the Catholic doctrine. Sola scriptura and sola fide remain heretical. His conception of the universal priesthood of the baptised, and its denial of a sacramental, sacrificial priesthood is still heresy. His effective denial of the central teaching authority in the Church has led directly to the fragmentation of the Church, to the point that what might be loosely termed protestant Christianity numbers tens of thousands of denominations, a natural consequence of each man being his own pope. And as for the Sacrifice of the Mass…
  4. The Church is “officially opposed” to women’s ordination? No, actually. It recognises that women’s ordination is impossible. Can one oppose the impossible? That the pope today embraced Ms Jackelén means he acknowledged her as a child of God not as a bishop.
  5. That cross “deputing” (depicting methinks) God as “creative, reconciling and sanctifying” brings to mind the invalid baptismal formula condemned by the Church a few years ago.

I have barely scratched the surface.

Judging by this propaganda piece, it seems we are on the precipice of another papal PR disaster. The Vatican PR people may again have to work overtime to explain away mis-steps in the papal Gestenpolitik (I am coining this word as it sounds snappy in German; “gesture politics” is a little clumsier). The problem with gestures is that they can be received and interpreted in manifold ways, and the law of unintended consequences can come into play. Gestures need to be carefully chosen and thought through. The pope may be about to pull a wonderful gesture upon us; but he may also totally confuse matters and the resulting chaos, even scandal, might be, in the eyes of at least some, ecclesiologically criminal.

Probably we all have sympathy for the pope’s striving to promote a fuller, more active faith, “a faith that does justice” as the Jesuits would put it. Who could deny the validity of his apparent desire that faith should be just as much a matter of heart and hand as of mind and mouth? But mind and heart are codependent, and to over-exalt the doing of good works would be an ironic gesture towards the heirs of him who rejected their salvific value. Moreover, to foster confusion on matters of faith would be anything but a good work, and far from merciful.

Surely the best of Protestants would agree that the Reformation is a tragedy in ecclesial terms, in particular in the pursuit of its apostolic commission from Christ to proclaim the Good News.

The dialogue is good; the peaceful coexistence is wonderful. This aspect of ecumenism sets an example to a world so dominated by the bigoted outrages of those such as IS/Daesh. But to pretend that there are no real differences, and that what differences remain are inconsequential, would be pure self-indulgence and an insult to the thinking members of the Lutheran and other Protestant communities.

However, Pope Francis is surely not going to walk this path. He may surprise us all. He may be keeping us on our toes. It is something we should pray for. And we should always be praying for him of course.

At the risk of the accusation of being a killjoy, Reformation Day is something to be endured not enjoyed. And to be fair, Pope Francis is not exactly smiling in this picture from today. Very sound.



10 thoughts on “Honouring Luther?

  1. Horrific dear Fr. Hugh. Bad enough for us laity…shocking for the clergy. Disturbing for us all. But worse, Francis has changed the College of Cardinals – dropping the Traditionals in favour of Progressives. He is determined to change our beloved Church. However we faithful will carry on as we have always done….and ignore Francis’s foreign ideas. How it all must offend Our Lord.


    1. It is all consistent with the papal exhortation to the young to go out and make a mess. However, I do think he has, according to his own lights, the best of intentions. But without discretion they can lead to an undesirable place. I am not convinced that he is not being badly advised as well. I imagine the Kaspers of this world can be very smooth, very ingratiating, and very persuasive.



  2. Father, I think you are far more charitable than I could be.

    The Tablet, will as ever, push their agenda. Unfortunately, the Holy Father is giving them plenty of ammunition.

    The Herald has the full text of the declaration up now as well as the text of the Holy Father’s homily.



    The homily contains the usual wooly ecumenical waffle. The declaration, on the other hand, I can’t in conscience accept.


  3. It is important to trust in the Holy Spirit. Jesus said that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church.

    Popes have always had their different emphases. I’m glad that there are people like you who make others aware of those differences. I just never want to be one of those people who thinks of himself to be “more Catholic than the pope.”


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