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Catholic Church must bear its share of blame for the Reformation, says cardinal

Attendees listen to Cardinal Kurt Koch's talk about Martin Luther and the Reformation at The Catholic University of America in Washington, May 30. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

The head of the Vatican’s office for Christian unity has said the Reformation might have been averted if only bishops at the time had been more open to criticism.

Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, told an audience of Catholic and Lutheran leaders at the Catholic University of America: “If Martin Luther’s call for reform and repentance had found open ears among the bishops of the time and of the pope in Rome, the reform intended to be initiated by him [Luther] would not have become the Reformation.”

The Swiss cardinal’s speech was part of a symposium held in Washington DC, “The 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther’s Posting of the Ninety-Five Theses Conference: Luther and the Shaping of the Catholic Tradition”.

“For the fact that the original reform of the Church became instead a Church-dividing reformation, the Catholic Church of the time must bear its share of the blame,” he said.

Cardinal Koch also pointed out that the reforms Luther called for were not extraordinary in their time: similar reforms were gaining traction elsewhere, like the “devotio moderna,” or “modern devotion,” movement in the Netherlands that called for humility and simplicity in the Church, or the first multilingual edition of Scripture that was published in Spain in 1515.

It wasn’t until later in Luther’s life, Cardinal Koch said, that Luther began to call into question the role and structure of the Church. Because of this, he said, it isn’t fair to see the posting of Luther’s theses as the moment the Church split into Lutheranism and Catholicism.

Cardinal Koch stated that political leaders in Germany were largely responsible for the formation of a distinct Lutheran church about 100 years after Luther wrote his theses.

Still, the cardinal said, Luther’s essential question about the role of the Church remains important and must be addressed in the dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans. Additionally, reconciliation must be a guiding theme in the conversation,

Cardinal Koch said that Catholics must continue to apologise for their sometimes violent offences, like wars, against other religious groups, just as Lutherans must apologise for the way it has painted the pre-Reformation Catholic Church over the years.

The cardinal also called for a consensus between Catholics and Lutherans on Luther’s doctrine of justification — the idea that a person is saved through faith rather than actions.

“After 500 years of division,” the cardinal said, “we must strive for a binding communion and put it into effect already today.”

Retired Lutheran Bishop Eero Huovinen of the Diocese of Helsinki responded to the Cardinal Koch’s address, saying he agreed with what the cardinal had said, and focusing on the 2015 Catholic-Lutheran joint “Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and the Eucharist,” which attempts to reach common theological ground between the two groups. Some of the scholars who drafted the declaration attended the talk.

Both speakers praised the progress already made to reconcile Catholics and Lutherans. They called for the 500th anniversary of the theses to be a starting point for a more nuanced effort toward reconciliation.

The May 30-June 1 conference at Catholic University was co-sponsored by Metropolitan Washington, DC, Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran church in America, Catholic University’s School of Theology and Religious Studies, the Vatican’s Pontifical Committee of Historical Sciences, and the US bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.