One divided family
Bishop Heinrich BedfordStrohm, chairman of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, has said that the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 should be profoundly ecumenical in character. “With this clear distinction from all other commemorations of past centuries, we are sending a signal of reconciliation and a new beginning,” he said. This is something that Catholics should welcome.
In the past the subject of the Reformation has been a matter of fierce contention between Catholics and Lutherans and other members of the Protestant community. One side has pointed to what it perceived as the corruption of the preReformation Catholic Church, and what it has seen as Rome’s lack of faithfulness to Holy Scripture. Catholics, in return, have pointed to the historical unsustainability of many Protestant claims, as well as the incoherence of many Protestant beliefs, given the different confessional communities that have sprung from the Reformation. With the coming of the 500th anniversary next year, which falls on October 31, the day on which Luther initiated the Reformation by presenting his 95 theses in Wittenberg, it is not to be expected that Catholics and Protestants will suddenly abandon past divisions and rediscover lost unity. Doctrine matters and so does history.
But one can reasonably hope that both doctrine and history can now be approached in a manner that generates not heat, but light. Indeed, this is something that all should wish for: that Catholics and Protestants should both dig deeply into their shared past – in partic-
The Reformation’s 500th anniversary offers a chance to rediscover common roots ular into the Fathers of the Church – and, while frankly acknowledging differences, also rediscover their common roots.
In fact, Catholics and Protestants have been doing just this for a long time already, and much progress has been made. The doctrine of justification by faith is no longer the huge divider it once was, and it may be hard now to understand the circumstances in which it was. But other matters have arisen which have served further to divide Catholics and Protestants in the last 500 years of separation: in quite a few moral matters, Catholic and Protestants are further apart than ever, and the question of women bishops, priests and deacons has also revealed further division. These are matters that Luther could never have foreseen.
Like members of a family who have grown estranged over the years, the only solution is to keep on talking. The Catholic Church rightly sees ecumenism as integral to her mission. The fifth centenary of the Reformation is to be welcomed not as a celebration of the Reformation as a breaking of the Church’s communion, but as a chance to deepen mutual understanding through dialogue and to build brotherly cooperation between Catholics and Protestants.
Luther had some choice things to say about the popes of his own day: it is good to see that the Pope of our own time, Francis, will be visiting Sweden for the anniversary, and taking part in an ecumenical service there. Once upon a time, and not so very long ago, this would have been unthinkable. That it is now happening is something for which we should all be grateful. This 500th anniversary may well offer, in the words of Bishop Bedford-Strohm, a new beginning.
A heart for victims
The fight against modern slavery is central to Cardinal Vincent Nichols’s mission as Archbishop of Westminster. Last week we discovered one reason why. “Over the last 15 years in my life,” the cardinal said, “and I think in the life of the Catholic Church more broadly, there have been really difficult lessons to learn about understanding victims and opening your heart to victims.”
The cardinal says the abuse crisis has taught the Church about the need to see things from the perspective of those who have suffered. Though much has changed, this is still a lesson that needs to be learned.
Peter Saunders, founder of the abuse survivors’ charity Napac, has often said that the Church needs to be better at listening. Few survivors would sue their diocese, he has argued, if they were properly heard out in the first place.
Cardinal Nichols’s words also identify something profoundly Christian. The Crucifixion showed that God was not necessarily on the side of the powerful, but was more likely to be found among the despised and the vulnerable. In our society, haunted by Christianity, the focus on the victim can become distorted. Groups compete for the status of the most downtrodden. Real injustices are overlooked in favour of whichever groups have managed to present themselves as the underdog.
But precisely because the Christian attentiveness to victims has filtered into the culture, the Church is often able to work with people of all faiths and none: in responding to the refugee crisis, in opposing assisted suicide and in the cardinal’s own efforts against trafficking.
Yet there are also forgotten victims: the unborn, of course; the victims of all kinds of immorality; and those who live without hearing the Good News, who are in a sense the victims of untruth. To them, too, the Church has an urgent mission.
CATHOLIC HERALD, MAY 20 2016 3