When, on this day 499 years ago, a small-town Augustinian friar lecturing in a start-up college in provincial Germany posted dozens of arguments on the door of a castle church, he offered a prime example of what scientists call “the butterfly effect,” namely that small causes can have large effects.
In reality, Martin Luther’s nailing (or more likely gluing) his hard-to-read 95 theses on what was, in effect, Wittenberg university’s bulletin board, was less the trigger of the Reformation than the copies he posted, together with an accompanying letter of breathtaking audacity.
One was to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, then the most powerful bishop in Germany, which meant, sooner or later, the pope himself would be involved.
Luther was not the first to critique the sale of indulgences, or the way the sacrament of confession had been reduced in late-medieval Europe from a channel of God’s grace to a mechanistic transaction. (A local Dominican friar loathed by Luther had a marketing jingle: ‘As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs’).
But as all great polemicists do, he nailed the theological error behind the corruption at the crucial moment, provoking a disproportionate reaction that in turn fueled an uprising. And part of that was about timing.
Tomorrow’s Feast of All Saints was when the ruler of Saxony used to bring out his impressive display of relics, and indulgences were granted (for a price) to the pilgrims who viewed them.
By attacking the system, Luther put into doubt not just the whole medieval basis of clerical livelihoods, but a powerful network of interests — from bankers and bishops all the way up to Rome — that was never likely to take the assault lying down.
There was also a moment when the protest went viral: at Worms, when Luther in 1521 was called on to answer to the emperor. His extraordinarily courageous act of turning up and defying the might of state and Church won many hearts and minds, and gave birth to a revolutionary movement that soon span out of control.
It wasn’t just the authorities’ self-interested over-reaction, but Luther’s own mercurial psychology — tripped by the knowledge that he faced execution at any moment — that explains the series of events, movements and conflicts that we now call the Reformation.
But whatever its causes, the result was tragedy. A valid critique of genuine corruption descended into heresy, division and war.
Luther did not intend to split the Church, yet most of the northern European church over time rejected Rome. Luther never intended to question the Sacraments, yet they were soon thrown into doubt. He never wanted a social uprising, yet that is what occurred.
But of all the unintended consequences of Luther’s protest, the secularization of Europe, especially of its educated classes, is probably the greatest of all — a five-century process meticulously traced in Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation.
Endless doctrinal controversy followed by a hundred years of destructive and inconclusive political-religious wars led to the privatization of religion and the search for empirical observation and philosophy and ideology as a means of uniting society.
When these eventually collapsed — as they now have — relativism and individualism are (mostly) all that remains.
And, of course, shopping. The drive for technology and to consume were the seventeenth-century Dutch responses to sectarian conflict, and are nowadays pretty much the western world’s dominant religion.
Of course, both sides are to blame in that cycle of events — something that will be acknowledged today in the first ecumenical global commemoration of the Reformation in Lund.
The dialogue between the two sides is 50 years old, and has produced a number of significant documents — which begs the question of what Pope Francis today can add to the process.
Here, at least, are five things he brings to the table which no previous pope has.
First, he is — to borrow my biography’s title — a “great reformer,” one who sees the need for the Church to be always in need of renewal in response both to internal degradation and external needs. He has said this is something the Church can learn from Luther, although it is equally present in the great reforming popes of the past, or in saints such as Ignatius of Loyola and Francis of Assisi.
Second, he comes with no fear or suspicion of Lutherans but decades of fellowship. In his interview with the Swedish Jesuit journal Signum he spoke of many friendships with Argentine Lutherans —Danish as well as Swedish — with whom he has had sincere exchanges. Traveling with him on the plane today will be one of his oldest non-Catholic friends, the evangelical pastor Marcelo Figueroa.
Third, he feels no obligation to remain within the boundaries of existing theological consensus. In his Signum interview, Francis approvingly quoted what Patriach Athenagoras allegedly told Pope Paul VI: “Let the two of us go ahead, and we will put the theologians on an island to discuss among themselves.”
“Going ahead” in this case means opening up opportunities for collaboration and friendship through common witness and joint works, which Francis passionately believes create new spaces for the Holy Spirit to bind people together. What happens today is intended to break new ground for the theologians later to work out.
Fourth, Francis has a specific abhorrence of the kind of corruption Luther denounced. One of the pope’s favorite phrases is “spiritual worldliness,” an illness identified by the Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac as using the Gospel in the service of particular worldly interests — whether ideology, money, or status.
In my biography I show how Jorge Mario Bergoglio constantly fought against symptoms of this worldliness in the Jesuits and later in the clergy. As cardinal he saw it in Rome and hated it; now he is pope, he is quietly attacking it on many different fronts.
To take one example: under John Paul II, a cardinal in receipt of a very fat donation could arrange for the benefactor to have a bacciamano — kiss the pope’s hand — after Mass with him, and of course a picture with the pope to sit on his desk to impress the world.
Try doing that now with Francis, and you’ll get a flea in your ear.
Finally, Francis is the pope who, more than any other leader of the Catholic Church in modern times. has restored the primacy of mercy to the Church’s proclamation. The whole point of mercy is that it is about God’s reckless forgiving and our complete inability to merit it.
Wasn’t that Luther’s point?
Perhaps the main task of today’s ecumenical acts in Lund and Malmö is simply to help both Lutherans and Catholics “receive” the results of 50 years of dialogue between the two Churches. The result of that dialogue is a series of agreements — as well as persisting disagreements — ably summed up in the joint document prepared for the occasion, From Conflict to Communion.
Yet who knows about it? William G. Rusch, Professor of Lutheran Studies at Yale’s Divinity School and a leading ecumenist, believes “the task before us is to receive the fruit of 50 years of dialogue,” the results of which have not been “rejected” so much as “neglected.”
Which is why, said Rusch, the mere fact of the pope appearing today in Lund — where in 1947 the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) was founded — is “an enormous step, compared to where we’ve been.”
The LWF speaks for some 90 percent of the world’s Lutheran Churches, with a combined membership of around 80m people.
In a telephone interview, Rusch told Crux he hopes that the papal visit will enable what he believes to be the next step in the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue, namely a juridical process that binds the LWF’s member Churches and of course Catholics.
The great step forward in this respect was the 1999 Declaration of Justification. According to Rusch the achievement was not just in what it said — essentially, that the roots of Luther’s disagreements with the papacy no longer pertain — but how it came about.
The process showed that there could be a “magisterial function for the global Lutheran communion,” which effectively allowed the theological agreements to move from paper to practice.
It frustrates Rusch that since then, that gain hasn’t been built upon. While he admires From Conflict to Communion and the recent US Catholic-Lutheran document, Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry, and Eucharist, he says neither provides a practical basis for moving forward.
But this kind of institutional process is not where Francis’s interest lies. He believes in praying and working together for justice and peace; such common witness, he believes, is what opens hearts and minds — and prevents the kind of institutional rigidity which is toxic for Christian unity.
Today, we might just see a gesture, or an initiative, which shakes open a new phase for the future of the dialogue, and which is aimed as much at secular Europe as the Lutherans.
“I am convinced those who don’t believe or don’t seek God, maybe haven’t felt the restlessness that comes from seeing a witness,” he told Signum, adding: “And this is very tied to affluence. Restlessness is rarely found in affluence.”
Restlessness is one area where the reformers Martin Luther and Pope Francis are definitely on common ground.
[Austen Ivereigh is traveling with the pope for Crux. Stay tuned for his updates].