Plans by German Catholics and Lutherans to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 have hit the rocks. Catholics are offended that the German Evangelical Church (which includes Lutherans) has not acknowledged a recent ecumenical convergence on the doctrine of justification, one of the great dividing lines between our two traditions.
We cannot pretend to be too dismayed by this setback. Catholics and Lutherans share many beliefs and some liturgical practices (depending on which variety of Lutheran we are talking about). But the fact remains that, for Catholics, 1517 was a bad year. By nailing his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle church, Martin Luther began a process that carried millions of people out of communion with the successor of Peter. Luther was right to criticise the abuses of the medieval Church, though many Catholics, such as Erasmus, were also doing so. But he ended up by identifying the Pope with the Antichrist and watering down the doctrine of the Eucharist, setting a precedent for more extreme reformers who eviscerated the sacraments.
The Catholic Church is right to reassess the Reformation in the light of modern scholarship and warmer relations with Protestants; it must also acknowledge its own terrible mistakes and its role in the tragic wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries. But it is wrong to “celebrate” the wound that Luther opened in the body of Christ, and therefore the breakdown of this naïve initiative is no disaster.
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