An ecumenical group has asked Pope Francis to lift the excommunication of Martin Luther and in that way open the door to a new gesture of Catholic-Lutheran reconciliation.
– Mutual condemnations
The new petition to the pontiff to rehabilitate the legacy of the Protestant reformer was contained in a Pentecost declaration published by the Altenberg Ecumenical Discussion Circle, a group of German-speaking Catholic and Protestant theologians that over the past two decades has been publishing statements on issues around Christian unity.
In its declaration, the group – which includes well-known Catholic theologians Johanna Rahner, of the University of Tübingen, and Dorothea Sattler, of the University of Münster – called on Francis to withdraw the strongly-worded papal condemnations of Luther that were issued at the height of the Reformation.
On June 21 1520, Pope Leo X with the bull Exsurge Domine “condemn[ed], reprobate[d] and reject[ed] completely” 41 of Luther’s theses as “errors… either heretical, scandalous, false, offensive to pious ears or seductive of simple minds, and against Catholic truth”. On that occasion, Leo X also gave the reformer 60 days to recant or face excommunication.
Luther subsequently retaliated and declared that “whoever wrote this bull, he is Antichrist”, and affirmed that he dissented “from the damnation of this bull, that I curse and execrate… as sacrilege and blasphemy of Christ”.
60 days after the publication of Exsurge Domine, Luther and fellow reformer Philip Melancthon burned in Wittenberg a copy of the bull, along with papal constitutions and books of canon law and scholastic theology.
The final chapter in the sad episode of division came on January 3 1521, when Leo X notified the German reformer via the bull Decet Romanum Pontificem that he had been formally excommunicated.
– The anathemas, “bumper blocks” on the path to unity
Seven months out from the 500th anniversary of Decet Romanum Pontificem, the Altenberg ecumenical group urged Pope Francis to take advantage of the date in January next year to lift Leo X’s excoriation of Luther in the bull as a “misguided”, “debased”, “depraved”, “damnable… heretic”.
At the same time, the circle of theologians also called on the Lutheran World Federation to revoke Luther’s condemnation of the Pope as an “Antichrist”.
Both Catholic and Lutheran leaders should make clear that the medieval crossfire of accusations in no way pass judgment on or bind faithful of either denomination today, the academics insisted.
For his part, Cologne pastor and ecumenical theologian Hans-Georg Link lamented that the mutual anathemas still stand in the way “like bumper blocks” of an official mutual recognition of the Protestant and Catholic Church.
– Chuches to mark fifth centenary of excommunication with joint worship service in Rome
The decades since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) have brought about significant advances in Catholic-Lutheran dialogue, producing joint documents on themes such as the Eucharist, the ministry or the apostolicity of the Church,
But despite the fact that the Churches were able to come in 1999 to a common word on the doctrine of justification that produced the anathemas in the sixteenth century – such that the corresponding condemnations no longer “apply” – the Catholic Church continues to insist that it cannot lift the excommunication on Luther because it was finished by the reformer’s death, in the words of Vatican ecumenical head, Cardinal Kurt Koch.
Still, perhaps the Churches can still hope for a gesture of reconciliation next year, on the fifth centenary of Luther’s excommunication, which Catholics and Lutherans are preparing to mark with a joint worship service in Rome.
Ahead of that date, Catholic and Lutheran leaders have expressed their hopes of “embrac[ing] the future into which God continues to call us” and of “continu[ing] on the path of reconciliation”.