Post Martin Luther, now 500 years down the line, the Church has gone from division to reconciliation, shows a recent Pew Research Religion report. The Trumpet gives this report on the matter: “From the Catholic perspective, Protestants were the rebels who divided the church against Christ’s clear commands for unity.
The Catholic Church had always wanted to return these daughter churches to its fold, but without success. A huge turning point occurred in 1959 with Pope John xxiii’s announcement of the Second Vatican Council, aimed at discussing reconciliation and unity. (Photo: Pope Francis, Reuters)
To get an idea of what church unity (or “ecumenism”) meant before Vatican ii, Orthodox priest Lawrence Farley provided this anecdote of some Protestants who were meeting the pope. “They asked him to offer a prayer for them, and in response, he prayed in Latin the prayer offered over incense in the mass, ‘May you burn for His glory.’ Since the prayer was offered in its original Latin, the Protestant pilgrims had no clue as to its meaning, but were delighted that the pontiff took the time to pray with them.”
Despite this, theologian Herbert W. Armstrong pointed to the fact that unity would be achieved. In a Plain Truth article in 1961, a year before the council officially began, he wrote: “The pope will step in as the supreme unifying authority—the only one that can finally unite the differing nations of Europe.
The iron jurisdiction over both schools and religion will be turned over to the Roman Catholic Church. Europe will go Roman Catholic! Protestantism will be absorbed into the ‘mother’ church—and totally abolished” (emphasis added).
For decades before and after the council, Mr. Armstrong forecast that the Catholic Church would unify the religious divisions in order to bind together the European continent.
The end of Vatican ii in 1965 was heralded as a great victory for unity. Protestant and Orthodox Christians were pulled from hell and accepted as containing other “elements … of truth.”
Two years later, Protestant leaders were seriously questioning the need for an ongoing Protestant movement. The Lutheran bishop of Berlin, Otto Dibelius, said, “If the Catholic Church of 450 years ago had looked as it does today, there never would have been a Reformation.” Dr. Carl E. Braaten of Chicago’s Lutheran Theological Seminary concluded that it was becoming increasingly difficult to justify “a need for Protestantism as an independent movement.”
Last year, to commemorate the Reformation’s 499th anniversary, Pope Francis traveled to Lund, Sweden, and gave a talk to the Lutheran World Federation. He praised Luther, saying, “With gratitude we acknowledge that the Reformation helped give greater centrality to sacred Scripture in the church’s life.”
This year, Lutherans and Catholics came together to produce a document called “From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017.” It documents the work on unity and describes how they believe it can be furthered.
The document quotes Pope John xxiii saying, “The things that unite us are greater than those that divide us.” Both sides are regretful of the “polemical” environment that existed for the more than 400 years before the Vatican ii council. With the passage of time, they now say, has come a collective memory loss. “As a result of this forgetting, much of what divided the church in the past is virtually unknown today,” the document states.
The four major issues discussed in the document are justification, the Eucharist, the ministry and “scripture and tradition.” “While there are still numerous difficulties concerning the ministry,” the document says, “the other three issues are close to being totally resolved.”
On the two issues of justification and “scripture and tradition,” Catholics and Lutherans have been able to reconcile their differences—not just among the clergy, but also among everyday churchgoers.
A number of Pew polls done in advance of the 500th anniversary bear this out. One poll titled “U.S. Protestants Are Not Defined by Reformation-Era Controversies 500 Years Later” shows that in regard to justification, more American Protestants agree with the Catholic teaching than with Luther’s teaching of sola fide (by “faith alone”). (Photo: Martin Luther’s thesis. Universal History Archive, Getty)
Regarding “scripture and tradition,” Luther’s famous pronunciation was sola scriptura (by “scripture alone”). Once again, a majority of American Protestants agree with the Catholic view, which states that both church teachings and tradition are necessary for salvation. On the European continent, the numbers are similar.
Five hundred years have passed, and a majority of Protestants side with the Catholic Church rather than with Luther on his most important criticisms.
Another Pew poll titled “Five Centuries After Reformation, Catholic-Protestant Divide in Western Europe Has Faded” shows just how much the majority of Protestants and Catholics in Europe have embraced each other. Across Western Europe, nearly 60 percent of Protestants say they are “more similar than different.” Only 26 percent believe the opposite. And in Germany, where Luther originally protested, the number who believe the two churches are more similar is 78 percent.
The vast majority of Catholics and Protestants say they are willing to accept a member of the opposite church as their neighbor or even as a member of their family. In Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, the number of Protestants willing to accept a Catholic family member is 98 percent.
Among Catholics, the rate of accepting Protestants into their families is a little lower, especially in Italy, Spain and Portugal. In fact, in all the pushes for ecumenism, the Catholic Church remembers that it is the mother church, and that the Protestant denominations are the daughters that split off. The Catholic Church gathers together its split-offs into unity, not the other way around.
This is why there is a difference in the language that different church leaders use to urge their congregations to unity. In January, the Anglican Church’s archbishop of Canterbury told Protestants that in pondering the Reformation, they should “repent” of their part in “perpetuating divisions.”
A year earlier, Pope Francis apologized for persecuting Protestants—but not exactly in that language. “As the bishop of Rome and pastor of the Catholic Church, I would like to invoke mercy and forgiveness for the non-evangelical behavior of Catholics toward Christians of other churches,” he said. “At the same time, I invite all Catholic brothers and sisters to forgive if today, or in the past, they have suffered offense by other Christians.”
As the Trumpet wrote at the time, “‘Non-evangelical behavior’ is an interesting euphemism for the massive violence unleashed in the wake of the Reformation.” The Thirty Years’ War between Catholic and Protestants alone cost 8 million lives.
While unity and ecumenism have been a peaceful process in the last five decades, there are a number of issues that look difficult to reconcile. The Catholics, even under Pope Francis, have maintained conservative approaches to issues, while many Protestants have taken more liberal stances. Both Herbert W. Armstrong and Gerald Flurry have pointed to the fact that while steps toward unity will initially be peaceful, when a time of crisis comes, a Catholic Church of force and power will have its way. That has been the way it was done in the past, and it is the way it will be done in the future.
Read the full article in The Trumpet.
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