Cardinal Kasper chases the spectre of Luther

Shops in Wittenberg cash in on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

Martin Luther: An Ecumenical Perspective
by Walter Kasper, Paulist Press, £10

This slim volume weighs in at a mere 43 pages, some of which are not completely covered in text, and consists of seven very brief chapters, all with notes. To read it is the work of about half an hour. So, it is more a pamphlet than a book, and crafted as an academic essay, given the copious references.

Any approach to Martin Luther is going to have to take account of two things. The first is the historical situation in which the reformer emerged, while the second is his theology, as it appeared then, and as it appears now; for the interpreted Luther of today is rather different to the Luther of the 16th century.

When it comes to the historical setting, Cardinal Walter Kasper talks rather grandly of “a transitional period of decline and new beginnings”, but he presents this with such broad brushstrokes that we learn little that is new, and want to say “yes, but” at the end of most sentences.

Kasper sees Luther as someone “greatly out of season” and tells us that “his agenda cannot simply be derived from the situation at that time”. This is pretty doubtful. How does Luther stand out as any different to Jan Hus or John Wycliffe? The answer, of course, is that Luther benefited greatly from the febrile political situation of his time, and the support of the German princes in particular, as well as from the invention of printing.

With a similar political wind behind them, Hus and Wycliffe might have made an equal impact. Kasper is loath to admit the pivotal role played by the princes, or to admit that Luther deliberately threw in his lot with them, rather than the radicals. He also completely ignores Luther’s rabid anti-Semitism, which surely marks him out as what he essentially was: a German nationalist of a particular type.

But what of Luther’s theology? The cardinal is eager to paint Luther as a reforming Catholic rather than a reformer, at least in the early part of his career, but this rather ignores the reception of Luther by Lutherans in subsequent ages.

Moreover, he sees Luther’s theology of the Church as something that arose thanks to the alliance with the princes, which Luther himself saw as only temporary. That may be the case, but, as with a work of literature, authorial intention is irrelevant.

The early Luther did not want to create schism, but to reform the Church from within. True enough, but the Lutheran confession we ended up with tells us something about the inevitability of historical development, and theological development too. It was no accident that Luther was identified as a heretic early on, and excommunicated. The Catholic Church was completely correct in identifying the trajectory of Lutheran thought.

Kasper might like to dwell on Luther as he might have been, but history and theology consist in what has been, and what cannot be undone.

And what of the chances of ecumenism today, which is Kasper’s main theological interest? According to him, things have moved on with the advent of Pope Francis who “describes ecumenical unity no longer in terms of concentric circles around the Roman centre point, but rather in terms of a polyhedron, that is, a multi-surfaced shape that is not a puzzle constructed from many pieces, but rather is a whole entity. If we think of it as a precious stone, it reflects the light which falls upon it in a wonderfully variegated way.”

That sounds all very nice, but what does it mean in practice? This strikes me as the sort of language and imagery that gives theology a name for obfuscation and obscurity. It is an image that has no correspondence with reality. For what is it an image of?

At no point in this short book does Kasper ever really give us any revealing insight into Luther or the future of ecumenism. He tells us that the 500th anniversary of the Reformation could be a new opportunity for both Catholics and Protestants. But nowhere does it emerge what this might mean beyond the realm of words and the opportunity to write volumes such as the present one.

In addition, the book has been translated from the original German with a literalness better reserved for Holy Writ. It is irritating and misleading to use the term “office” when what you mean is either orders or ministry. Language counts, as every theologian should know.

By no stretch of the imagination is this a good book, and one wonders if the publishers would have bothered with it if its author were not a Prince of the Church.