Friday, October 06, 2006

And the Catholic Church became "Lutheran"

In his opening address at last week's General Retreat of the Society of the Holy Trinity, the Rev. Dr. Frank C. Senn, Senior of the STS and pastor at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Evanston, Illinois, first took us back to the Reformation and the 16th Century:
In that confessional hardening, the Western Catholic Church split into competing confessions that were encoded into law. We today are not only the heirs of Martin Luther's reform movement; we are also the heirs of the lex reformandi. When the Lutheran Confession of Augsburg was adopted in cities and lands by vote of city councils and by order of princes, church and society had to be reformed in the light of this Confession. That meant that laws or ordinances had to be drawn up and enacted. There's nothing unusual about this. A reform that fails to attain legal status and to be incarnated in institutions will fail. It will remain just a good idea. But if it is encoded in law, a reform can change people's behavior and even their thinking, no matter how much they may at first begrudge the change. Through law -- church ordinances -- and official teaching on a popular level-catechisms-Lutheranism became the confessional reality of the Catholic Church in some places across central and northern Europe. Church life went on, but with significant changes that were inculcated into the hearts and minds of the people through consistent preaching and teaching and new patterns of worship.

In most places implementing these reforms required a break with the local hierarchy and therefore also a break in communion with the bishop of Rome. But Lutherans did not think they were breaking with the catholic tradition. They asserted twice in their Confession -- once after the twenty-one doctrinal articles and again after the seven pastoral articles -- that their churches had not departed, in their teachings and practices, from the Catholic Church, or even the Church of Rome, insofar as that is known from its ancient writers. Insofar as they were returning to the clear testimonies of Scripture and the church fathers, they implied that the Church under the pope had departed from this tradition. Later on the second Martin, Martin Chemnitz, would examine the Council of Trent and conclude that the Council had proposed a new understanding of tradition that was a novelty in Christian history.
Later in his address, Pr. Senn then brought us into the contemporary era, both throwing down and taking up the ecumenical gauntlet:
If Pope Benedict XVI, who was so instrumental in working out the final details of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, wants to strike a blow for Lutheran-Roman Catholic rapprochement, let him lift the papal bull of Leo X, Exsurge Domine, and declare that Martin Luther is not a heretic. In 1958, Father Joseph Ratzinger addressed a pastoral council in Vienna with these words:
There is no appropriate category in Catholic thought for the phenomenon of Protestantism today (one could say the same of the separated Churches of the East). It is obvious that the old category of "heresy" is no longer of any value. Heresy, for scripture and the early church, includes the idea of a personal decision against the unity of the church, and heresy's characteristic is pertinacia, the obstinacy of one who persists in his or her own private way. This, however, cannot be regarded as an appropriate description of the spiritual situation of the Protestant Christian. In the course of a now-centuries old history, Protestantism had made an important contribution to the realization of Christian faith, fulfilling a positive development of the Christian message and, above all, often giving rise to a sincere and profound faith in the individual non-Catholic Christian, whose separation from the Catholic affirmation has nothing to do with the pertinacia of heresy.... We must try to think our way forward here in the spirit of the New Testament and to apply this spirit to all the things that did not exist then, but are in our world today.

If this still represents the mind of Pope Benedict XVI, then we are grateful that we cannot be regarded as heretics. But can Martin Luther still be regarded as a heretic? He issued his call for reform as a loyal son of the Church. He had widespread support among the clergy and people. His proposals were never dealt with in a free council bringing all theological parties together. If "Protestantism has made an important contribution to the realization of Christian faith," Martin Luther had a lot to do with that. Pope Benedict XVI's admiration for the reformer is well known. Let him advance rapprochement to the next step by rescinding Exsurge Domine.

And on our part, let Lutheran Churches declare that the pope is not the Anti-Christ, turn to him for authoritative teaching in matters of faith and morals, and expect his leadership in the pursuit of Christian unity.

In the meantime, we members of the Society of the Holy Trinity are pastors in Lutheran Churches. According to our Rule, we are committed to the reconciliation of Lutheran Churches with the bishop and Church of Rome. It is not up to us to say what this reconciliation will look like, although we can use our ecumenically-informed imaginations. What we can do is move our Churches closer to the Roman Church by moving them closer to our own confessions, which include the three ecumenical creeds. There are many ways in which our Lutheran Churches have drifted away from their confessional moorings. I need not count them here; our Founding Statement gives such an accounting, and it is worth revisiting that document from time to time. But this Society exists primarily "to work toward the confessional and spiritual renewal of Lutheran churches." It is for that purpose that this ministerium has been formed and convenes in retreats. We will contribute to the renewal of Lutheran Churches by being ourselves renewed in our ordination vows, following the discipline laid out in the Rule of this Society.
There's more and you can read it all here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And from the desert southwest comes a hearty AMEN!

Pr. Dave Poedel, STS