500-year-old Catholic-Lutheran split is healing

By Peter Finney Jr.

No one knows if Martin Luther, an Augustinian priest, actually hammered his “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” (“95 Theses”) on the front door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on Oct. 31, 1517, but his formal challenge to Catholic Church teaching ushered in the Protestant Reformation, the seminal moment of Western Christianity over the last 500 years.

Five centuries later, perhaps as a fruit of the Second Vatican Council, an amazing rapprochement has been forged between the Catholic and Lutheran churches, so much so that the two signed a joint declaration 1999 on the doctrine of justification by faith, which opened further dialogue and has led to even closer ties, overcoming major doctrinal roadblocks.

In 2013, the two churches issued another landmark statement, “From Conflict to Communion.”

In commemoration of Luther posting his “95 Theses” on the Wittenberg church, Archbishop Gregory Aymond and Lutheran Bishop Michael Rinehart of Houston, Texas, will lead an ecumenical prayer service Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. at St. Louis Cathedral. The prayer service will be live-streamed at nolacatholic.org.

Not a ‘celebration’

“Some people might say, ‘Why commemorate the Reformation?’ and I think the problem is they think the term commemoration equals celebration,” said Father Buddy Noel, ecumenical officer of the Archdiocese of New Orleans and pastor of Our Lady of Prompt Succor Parish in Westwego. “The fact is we are commemorating and admitting together the sad divisions and the loss of life that took place.

“That was a disastrous period in European history, so we are not celebrating that. We’re reminding ourselves that as Christians, both groups bear part of the blame for the division that took place. We’re asking God for forgiveness, and we’re moving forward. We are retelling our shared history in a different way so that we will be able together to look at our history objectively.”

Father Noel, who collaborated on the prayer service with Lutheran pastor Ron Unger of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Kenner, said Vatican II was the launching pad for the great strides in the relationship between Catholics and Lutherans.

Push from Vatican II

“We have had 50 years of dialogue since the second Vatican Council,” Father Noel said. “That was the watershed event that really established the relationship between ourselves and the Lutherans. We have both international and national dialogues that are ongoing.”

The genesis of the split was Luther’s railing against the church’s practice of selling indulgences as a form of good works that would lessen or erase the temporal punishment for sin.

Father Johan Tetzel, a Dominican friar who served as a papal commissioner for indulgences, went to Germany to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. A famous saying was attributed to Father Tetzel: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

“That was the trip wire, absolutely,” Rev. Unger said. “I think that was the only thing he really took umbrage with in his ‘95 Theses.’ Other things evolved after that, but that was the key. I think he always regarded himself as a loyal son of the church.”

Luther, who was excommunicated by Pope Leo X in 1520, stressed the Bible’s teaching that Christians are saved by grace alone.

‘Equipped’ for good works

Bishop Rinehart, bishop of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod of the Lutheran Church, gave an ecumenical talk at Christ the King Lutheran Church in 2014. He said the new joint agreement between Catholics and Lutherans defines justification as follows: “Together we confess: By g

race 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.”

“Luther would say, ‘Good works don’t make a man good; but a good man does good works,’” Father Noel said.

Catholics and Lutherans share the creed. While intercommunion still is not possible, Lutherans believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. At the Easter Vigil, the Lutherans’ book of worship contains the same seven readings as used in the Catholic Church.

“Basically, it’s the same lectionary,” Father Noel said. “All of this has come about because of Vatican II.”

There are still obvious doctrinal disagreements: the ordination of women, married priests and the sacramentality of holy orders (the Catholic Church holds to apostolic tradition that priests are ordained by a bishop; Luther could not find a bishop to ordain priests and ordained them himself, apart from the apostolic succession); a 2009 Lutheran resolution allowing gays in “publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships” to serve as pastors. The Lutheran church also permits pastors to preside over same-sex unions.

Other priests had questions

From a historical perspective, Father Noel said, other Catholic priests had problems with church teaching about indulgences, but Luther was “the only one who stepped up to the plate. The important thing is he published, and they were translated into German, and the publication continued, so that even within a few months of its publication in Germany, it was showing up in Spain. This was among the first times a document was published internationally.”

The original document was written in Latin, Father Noel said, because it was an academic paper expected to be discussed and debated by church authorities.

Luther’s original objections, Father Noel said, spiraled into “religious and political experimentation and violent revolts. All of it very quickly evolved out from under Luther, and he no longer had any control over it at all. It became a much larger event.”

Three major Protestant movements grew out of the Reformation: the Reformation of Huldrych Zwingli in Switzerland; John Calvin’s movement in France, which spread to Switzerland; and the more radical Anabaptist Movement.

“Europe was ripe for that radical reshifting in the order of society,” Father Noel said. “There were all these elements in place, and it was one thing after another, and it plunged Europe into this really hideous situation, where religion was driving it, but it was just as much a political statement.”

The Council of Trent, which made the schism complete, opened in 1545. A year later, Luther died.

“There are many Lutherans, to this day, who are disgusted with the fracturing that took place, who regard themselves as evangelical Catholics,” Rev. Unger said.

After Vatican II, the Catholic Church began incorporating Protestant hymns such as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” into its hymnody.

We’ve come a long way

Rev. Unger, 72, said he is “absolutely amazed” at how close the churches have moved to each other.

“I remember when I was a kid, in the Lutheran Church, you had to have the Eucharist on Good Friday just to show you were not Catholic,” he said, laughing. “And in Lutheran households, you always ate lots of meat on Fridays just to show that you weren’t Catholic. We’ve come a long way just to be friendly.”

“I think the future is very bright for us,” Father Noel said, “because as we together face the issue of a more rampant, secularist mentality in which religion plays a smaller role, those who are people of faith are going to invariably draw closer together so that we can face those challenges together.”

In addition to the Oct. 23, 7 p.m. prayer service at St. Louis Cathedral, another Catholic-Lutheran event will be held at Loyola University New Orleans Oct. 12 at 7 p.m. at Nunemaker Lecture Hall in Monroe Hall. Rev. Dr. Philip Krey, president emeritus of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, will speak on “Luther’s Spiritual Exercises.” For more information, call 865-3728 or email lim@loyno.edu. The talk will be available as a free webinar: http://gps.loyno.edu/lim/webinars.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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