The movement to lift the excommunication still hanging over Protestant reformer Martin Luther is gathering steam, with one Catholic theologian explaining that such a move would be an “important ecumenical sign”.

– Catholic theologian: gesture “would allow the Catholic Church to express its appreciation of the Protestants today”

“Ecumenism thrives on symbolic acts and the withdrawal of the excommunication bull against Luther would be particularly significant”, University of Tübingen theologian Johanna Rahner told German Bishops’ news website June 7.

Rahner is part of the group of some thirty Protestant and Catholic theologians – the Alternberg Ecumenical Discussion Circle – that on Pentecost launched an appeal to Pope Francis to rescind his predecessor Pope Leo X’s 1521 condemnation of the great Protestant leader, lamenting that the anathema still in place is like a “bumper block” in the way of greater Christian unity.

In their Pentecost appeal, the Protestant and Catholic theologians also urged the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) to withdraw the reformer’s description of Pope Leo as the “Antichrist”.

But referring particularly to the theologians’ petition to Pope Francis, Rahner said such a gesture “would allow the Catholic Church to express its appreciation of the Protestants today”.

– Luther’s condemnation of the pope owes more to “style of the time”, less to theological convictions

Why push for the withdrawal of the reformer’s excommunication, when Catholic Church figures including Pope Benedict XVI and Vatican ecumenism chief Cardinal Kurt Koch have explained that the penalty is no longer in effect and in fact expired with the death of the reformer?

Rahner explained that although the advances that have been made in Catholic-Lutheran dialogue since the Second Vatican Council – most notably with the decree on ecumenism Unitatis redintegratio (1964) – could be interpreted as a rehabilitation of Luther, the bull of excommunication still condemned aspects of the doctrine Protestants continue to rely on today, and as such a revision is necessary.

What’s more, Luther’s characterisation of Leo X as the Antichrist owed less to his true theological convictions and more to the rhetorical “style of the time”, as well as to the “great apocalyptic fears” that the reformer entertained as he grew older, Rahner said.

The theologian recalled that as early as 2017 the LWF produced a study paper critical of the reformer’s papal “Antichrist” insult, and proposed to withdraw it.

That study paper could now be re-presented in an exchange with a corresponding gesture from Vatican authorities, Rahner suggested.

– The time is right

Speaking to, Rahner said the time was right for a new rapprochement between Catholics and Lutherans in the context of the wave of 500th anniversary celebrations around the Reformation.

Those commemorations began with the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses in 2017 and will build up to the 500th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession – the primary document of faith of the Lutheran Church – in 2030.

Indeed, LWF and Vatican officials are preparing to mark the anniversary of both Luther’s excommunication and the Augsburg Confession in a joint prayer service in Rome in June 2021.

That prayer service will be held with an eye to allowing “the gifts of understanding, healing and reconciliation to continue shaping the relationship between Catholics and Lutherans”, in the words of LWF General Secretary Martin Junge.

More stories on Novena on ecumenism:

Catholic-Lutheran reconciliation in 2021? Ecumenical group asks Pope to lift excommunication of Luther

Sweden’s Catholic, Lutheran Churches organise first ecumenical retreat “to respond to this time of crisis with depth”

German Bishops’ head says shared Eucharists with Protestants possible “according to conscience”

Francis reaffirms Catholic Church’s “irrevocable” commitment to cause of Christian unity

Catholic-Protestant community in Germany making “ecumenical congregations” a reality

Theologian: “Can we say the Eucharist is a meal of welcome and then not share it with all the baptised?”


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.