June 02, 2017

Prominent scholars from Catholic and Lutheran churches gathered at The Catholic University of America this week for a conference commemorating the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Rather than focusing on the differences and conflicts between the two churches, the event was intended to provide a deeper understanding of the historical, social, and theological issues facing Martin Luther as well as the Catholic response.

The three-day event began on Tuesday, May 30, with an address by Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, who spoke about the present state of Catholic-Lutheran relations, which has improved in the past 50 years thanks to ecumenical dialogue that began after the Second Vatican Council.

“In the first place, we must express a word of gratitude since, in 2017, we commemorate not only 500 years of the Reformation but also 50 years of interfaith dialogue between Christians and Lutherans, in which we have been privileged to learn how much we have in common,” Cardinal Koch said.

Part of the great challenge for both Catholics and Lutherans in finding common ground, the cardinal noted, has been overcoming the “extremely polemic” images each church has propagated about the other. By looking at the events of the Reformation from a less biased perspective, Cardinal Koch said it is easier to find truth and goodwill on both sides of the divide.

“It is possible to properly acknowledge Martin Luther’s intention, that he in no way intended a breach with the Catholic Church or the founding of a new church, but instead a renewal of Christianity in the spirit of the gospel,” he said.

Cardinal Koch also recognized the tragic consequences of the Reformation, which included religious war, separations, and, as a result, increased secularization around the world.

Bishop Eero Huovinen of Helsinki, Lutheran co-chair of the international dialogue, responded to Cardinal Koch’s statement with a discussion of the points of agreement between the Catholic and Lutheran churches. He also discussed ways Lutherans and Catholics can “proceed together toward a common understanding of the Eucharist, church, and ministry.”

Later sessions included leading Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox theologians from both Europe and North America. They discussed topics including justification, the nature of the Church, the Eucharist, and how the Reformation engaged Eastern churches.

Theology professor Michael Root, who served as one of the organizers of the conference, is a convert to Catholicism from Lutheranism who served on the drafting team for the Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.

Root spoke about the extent to which Martin Luther shaped the Catholic Church’s doctrine on justification as established at the Council of Trent in 1547.

“Martin Luther’s understanding of justification presented a challenge to the Catholic Church, to Catholic piety, and to Catholic theology,” Root said. “He framed the discussion in a new way — new again, in form and content. How a theologian would adhere to the Catholic side of what quickly became a polarized debate to respond to Luther was not clear … Yet not only were theologians called to respond, the church also needed to respond.”

Though Luther’s challenge to the Church inspired theologians to flesh out a clear Catholic understanding of justification, Root believes his specific ideas had little impact on what that teaching eventually was. This is, in part, because the bishops who were present at the Council of Trent would have had very little exposure to the teachings of Luther.

“Most bishops had heard little more than snippets extracted from Luther’s work,” said Root. “His influence was inevitably limited because his views were not well known and understood at the conference.”

Nelson H. Minnich, professor of church history, was a presenter during a plenary session about Luther’s ideas on ecclesiology, or the study of the Church. Minnich spoke about the three medieval models of the Church that Luther would have been exposed to during his life, and how those experiences might have shaped his attitudes.

“Martin Luther grew up in a world where the restored papal monarchy still fended off conciliarist challenges, where rulers sought control of church appointments and revenues, and where devout Christians practiced their faith in lay-run confraternities,” Minnich said.

Minnich’s address was followed by presentations from theologians Dorothea Wendebourg, of Humboldt University in Berlin; and Johanna Rahner, of Tuebingen University in Tuebingen, Germany; who spoke about Luther’s own views of the Church and how the Catholic understanding of ecclesiology has responded to him.

The conference, “Luther and the Shaping of the Catholic Tradition,” was co-sponsored by the Pontifical Committee of Historical Sciences; the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; The Catholic University of America; and the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with support from the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.

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