A Catholic Perspective on the Reformation

November 27, 2017

In light of the 500th year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we conducted short interviews with both Protestant and Catholic thinkers, getting their thoughts on the causes, consequences and significance of the Reformation (see our interview with a Protestant here). The following interview with Eric Demeuse, PhD Candidate in theology at Marquette University, provides a Catholic perspective on the Reformation.

Question: Why should a Catholic care about the Reformation? What aspects of the break from the Catholic Church are the most significant for her?

 

It’s hard for a Christian of any stripe not to care about the Reformation. Whether you consider Martin Luther the harbinger of a libertine modernity, a repugnant heretic, or a herald of the Gospel, he matters. For Catholics particularly, the Reformation stands both as a painful reminder of our own shortcomings in proclaiming and living the Gospel, as well as a spur to witness more profoundly to the centrality of Jesus Christ in our life and mission.

 

Which aspects of the break are most significant has been an evolving question in Catholic thinking. Questions of justification are, if not entirely resolved, at least no longer church-dividing since developments in the twentieth century by, for example, the Dominican Otto Hermann Pesch—who pointed out areas of agreement between Aquinas and Luther on justification—and Finnish Lutherans who argued that Luther maintains a doctrine of theosis (or ‘divinization’) in his understanding of salvation. These advances have born fruit on the ‘official,’ ecclesiastical level as well with the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, where the Roman Catholic Church and Lutheran World Federation reached ‘a common understanding’ on the issue of justification.

 

I think those who suggest that the most significant rifts lie in questions of authority and ecclesiology are closer to the root of the problem, but even here the story we are familiar with has been radically altered in light of recent historiography. Serious doubt has been cast on the image of a rebellious monk hammering theses to church doors in Wittenberg—a man subject to no one and nothing but Jesus Christ and the Gospel, opposed to all forms of obedience to ecclesiastical authority. For one, it is likely (though arguable) that Luther never in fact posted his Ninety-Five Theses to a church door; but we do know that he sent a copy to his archbishop. And the confessional documents of the Lutheran church profess a desire for ecclesiastical and canonical orders (see Melanchthon’s Apology, art. 14). Even Calvin was willing to recognize the laying on of hands as a kind of sacrament.

 

But the reality is that Catholics and Protestants are still divided, and this is felt most profoundly on Sundays. I remember in undergrad the sorrow that my closest friends and I felt when the Sabbath rolled around and we went our separate ways to worship the same Lord. None of us thought our churches unreasonable for ‘fencing the table’ as it is sometimes called—rather, we all recognized that this was the consequence of disunity among Christians. Communicatio in sacris—a sharing in the sacraments and, especially, the Eucharist—is the goal of ecumenism, not an indiscriminate means to that goal. Thus I think that questions of the Eucharist and the related question of the ministry are the most significant for the Catholic Church moving forward. To what degree can and should the Catholic Church recognize orders among other ecclesial communities, and then to what degree can the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in Protestant communions be recognized more fully by Rome? These are some of the more pressing questions for ecumenism today, and I do not pretend they are easily resolved—after all, it took Catholics and Lutherans almost 500 years to resolve (at least ‘officially’) differences on justification.

 

Question: Take a minute to explain to a Protestant reader why a Catholic might take issue with such a dramatic break from the tradition of the church?

 

In his book Catholicism, Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac wrote that "it is the Church’s mission to reveal to men that pristine unity that they have lost [through sin], to restore and complete it." He continues that "schism has always inspired the true believer with horror...For destruction of unity is a corruption of truth." Now, regardless of where one places the lion’s share of the blame for the sixteenth-century schisms (and I admit there was fault on all sides), disunity among Christians can be seen as nothing else than a scandal, since the Church is one as much as she is holy, catholic, and apostolic. Protestant theologian Peter Leithart perhaps put it best and most startlingly when he said, "The modern age has seen more than its share of horrors, but none is so stupefying as the spectacle of Christ re-crucified in our divisions. The only horror that might rival it is our complacency before this cross." The importance of unity for the Church thus renders divisions which occurred during the sixteenth century hardly celebratory by either side. Rather, the loss of unity among Christians should be lamented in the manner of the Psalmist, who concludes his cries of anguish with a cry of hope: "Restore us, O Lord God of hosts! Let thy face shine, that we may be saved!" (Psalm 80:19).

 

Question: Did the Reformation benefit the Catholic Church in any way?

 

Something can benefit the Catholic Church in at least two ways. One way is by prompting negation or refutation—people form opinions contrary to the prayer and practice of the Church and the Church is thus pushed to respond and to articulate in a more refined manner what she believes. This happens whenever heresy or schism arises—denials of the divinity of Christ led to the Nicene Creed; Berengar’s claims about the Eucharist in the middle ages led to a developed articulation of ‘real presence.’ A similar thing could be said of the Reformation—errors or ambiguities led to stunning formulations of doctrine such as Trent’s Decree on Justification, and calls for a reform of morals and ecclesiastical practices (which were also prevalent among those who remained in communion with Rome) were heard and responded to by the Catholic Church.

 

An event can also benefit the Church positively through affirmation—that is, certain positions and articulations are received into the Church’s living memory and teaching. Aspects of the Reformation also impacted the Catholic Church in this way. Though by no means the exclusive property of the Reformers, ideas about the universal priesthood of all believers, the sanctity of the lay vocation, Luther’s ‘theology of the cross,’ and other aspects of Protestant theology have fruitfully benefitted Catholic thinking and teaching. And I think Catholicism can learn yet more, especially in the area of scriptural exegesis. I occasionally send friends of mine in the seminary one or two of Luther’s homilies in the hopes that some of his brilliant, faithful, and creative exegetical insights will slowly seep into Catholic commentary and preaching.

 

Question: Lastly, do you think that steps towards greater unity are important or even possible for the people of God across the reformation divide? What should these steps look like?

 

As I mention above, unity is not merely a nice feature of the Church but one of her essential marks, and consequently division among the members of Christ’s body is not only unfortunate but is also a scandal. Steps toward greater unity, then, are indeed important and possible, but also central to the Church’s life and mission. Some of these steps I articulated above—the need to examine and dialogue further about the differences that remain regarding the ministry and the Eucharist. But there is a preliminary step to all of these necessary and promising dialogues—a step incumbent on all of Christ’s faithful as a moral obligation: personal conversion. This may sound trite, but the Second Vatican Council didn’t think so and thus made this principle of personal conversion the bedrock of her call to ecumenism:

 

"There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart. For it is from renewal of the inner life of our minds, from self-denial and an unstinted love that desires of unity take their rise and develop in a mature way. We should therefore pray to the Holy Spirit for the grace to be genuinely self-denying, humble, gentle in the service of others, and to have an attitude of brotherly generosity towards them. St. Paul says: 'I, therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace'...All the faithful should remember that the more effort they make to live holier lives according to the Gospel, the better will they further Christian unity and put it into practice. For the closer their union with the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, the more deeply and easily will they be able to grow in mutual brotherly love. This change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement" (Unitatis Redintegratio, §7-8).

 

About the Author. Eric J. DeMeuse is a PhD candidate in theology at Marquette University. His interests include ecclesiology, early modern scholastic theology, the Reformation, and the theology of Martin Luther. He is a contributor to the Dictionary of Luther and the Lutheran Traditions (Baker, 2017) and has published articles in The Journal of Theological Studies and The Studia Philonica Annual. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and two sons. 

 

Interview conducted by Joel Ballivian and C.J. Ward.

 

 

 

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