Why Lutherans can thank God for the Papacy of Benedict XVI

I have been asked to pen a few words for my wife’s parish newspaper on Benedict XVI’s papacy. I thought I would focus on his relationship with Luther and the Lutherans. I hope the editor of the magazine does not mind me publishing it ahead of time here on my own page.

On February 28, 2013, at 8pm in the evening, Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy comes to an end. Everyone has a different assessment of his papacy, each from their own point of view. From my point of view, as a “Lutheran in communion with the Bishop of Rome”, Benedict XVI will always stand out as unique among all the popes of history as the only one who really read, knew, and understood Martin Luther.

Part of the reason for this is that Benedict XVI is a German. Except for John Paul II (who came from a country even more uniformly Catholic than Italy), all other popes since Adrian VI (d.1523) were Italians. Not one of them had any first-hand lived experience of Lutheranism. Joseph Ratzinger on the other hand was raised in an environment where Catholics and Lutherans lived side by side. Since Luther forms part of the literary heritage of Germany, his bible and his writings were easily accessible to the young Ratzinger, who once claimed that he had already read all of Luther’s pre-reformation writings by the time he entered University. He continued his theological education in German universities where both Protestant and Catholic theologians and biblical exegetes were studied.

All of this would have greatly helped him understand the theological issues that divided and still divide Catholic and Lutherans. It was this background that gave him such a great advantage when he was negotiating the final deal on the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in 1999. It was Cardinal Ratzinger, as head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, who saved this Declaration from a dismal death at the draft stage. Cardinal Cassidy, the Australian prelate who was the head of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity at the time, had given up on it. But Ratzinger travelled to Germany, where, in his brother Georg’s home, he met together with Lutheran leaders to find the right formulas for affirming the joint faith of Catholics and Lutherans in regard to the doctrine of Justification. Thanks to this rescue mission, the Joint Declaration was signed into concrete history on October 31, 1999:

Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.

In an address in November, 2008, Pope Benedict addressed the central passage in Paul that caused so much division between Catholics and Lutherans.

Let us now reflect on a topic at the centre of the controversies of the century of the Reformation: the question of justification. How does man become just in God’s eyes?…

It is precisely because of his personal experience of relationship with Jesus Christ that Paul henceforth places at the centre of his Gospel an irreducible opposition between the two alternative paths to justice: one built on the works of the Law, the other founded on the grace of faith in Christ. The alternative between justice by means of works of the Law and that by faith in Christ thus became one of the dominant themes that run through his Letters…

Luther’s expression “sola fide” is true if faith is not opposed to charity, to love. Faith is to look at Christ, to entrust oneself to Christ, to be united to Christ, to be conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence, to believe is to be conformed to Christ and to enter into his love.

“If faith is not opposed to charity” – that was always the Catholic concern. In Catholic dogmatic tradition, faith was often seen as an intellectual exercise. Thinking of faith in this way made it impossible for Catholics to affirm that “faith alone” could justify. But Pope Benedict understood the way in which Luther (and no doubt St Paul) meant “faith”: a complete self-entrustment to Christ, which had the spiritual effect of conforming the soul to Christ in such a way that a true union with Christ was effected. It was as unimaginable to Luther that such faith could ever be without love as it was to St James and St Paul (cf. James 2:14f).

Benedict was the first pope ever to preach from a Lutheran pulpit (at the Roman Lutheran Church in March 2010) and the first to visit Luther’s monastery in Erfurt in September 2011. On that latter occasion, he met with Germany’s Lutheran Church leaders. In his speech, he correctly identified the two driving issues for Luther: “Wie kriege ich einen gnädigen Gott” (“How do I find a gracious God?”) and “Was Christum treibet?” (“What promotes Christ?”)

In respect to the first question, Pope Benedict said:

The fact that this question was the driving force of his whole life never ceases to make a deep impression on me. For who is actually concerned about this today – even among Christians? …The question no longer troubles us. But are they really so small, our failings? …The question: what is God’s position towards me, where do I stand before God? – Luther’s burning question must once more, doubtless in a new form, become our question too, not an academic question, but a real one. In my view, this is the first summons we should attend to in our encounter with Martin Luther.

And in reflection on the second, he said:

God, the one God, creator of heaven and earth, is no mere philosophical hypothesis regarding the origins of the universe. This God has a face, and he has spoken to us. He became one of us in the man Jesus Christ – who is both true God and true man. Luther’s thinking, his whole spirituality, was thoroughly Christocentric: “Was Christum treibet” was for Luther the decisive hermeneutical criterion for the exegesis of sacred Scripture. This presupposes, however, that Christ is at the heart of our spirituality and that love for him, living in communion with him, is what guides our life.

It is certainly what was at the heart of Ratzinger/Benedict’s own spirituality, and why I believe he was a very “Lutheran” pope. Many commentators will tell you that Ratzinger’s theology was “Christological” – but it was more than this: it was “Christocentric”. Christ was at the centre of his faith and theology in a way that was quite new in Catholic papal teaching. Again and again, you will find references in Benedict’s teaching to seeking the face of God in the human Christ. References to a “theology of the Cross” and a focus on the personal aspect of the mystery of the incarnation permeate Benedict’s teaching as strongly as it did Luther’s.

Perhaps this is why Pope Benedict XVI was such a strong promoter of the “new evangelisation” in our age. He was an “evangelical” pope, who knew that faith begins with a personal encounter with Jesus. He opened his first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est” (God is Love), with these words:

Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.

As he retires to a life of prayer, precisely to enter more deeply into that encounter with his Lord, Benedict XVI leaves us with a body of decisive papal teaching that will pave the way for future reflections between Lutherans and Catholics. Although we cannot perhaps hope that the new pope will have the same depth of appreciation for Lutheranism as his predecessor, it is my prayer that the relationship between Catholics and Lutherans which he fostered will grow and bear fruit in the years to come under the new papacy.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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14 Responses to Why Lutherans can thank God for the Papacy of Benedict XVI

  1. “Luther’s expression “sola fide” is true if faith is not opposed to charity, to love.”
    Aye, there’s the rub, David…while the Catholic Church continues to formally define justification, in continuity with Trent, as a process which includes the exercise of the theological virtue of charity made possible through the co-operation between man and God that the initial assent of faith brings about and which in turn preserves that assent of faith [cf. CCC 1993], the breach has not been repaired. Nice try, though ;0)

    • Schütz says:

      Are you so sure Luther defined the virtue of faith in such a way as to exclude the virtue of love? I sometimes think that Lutheran scholasticism failed to understand Luther as much as Catholic scholasticism did. And as you fail to understand Benedict.

      The last thing on Benedict’s mind as he spoke these words was the question of cooperation in the process of justification. It is simply the fact – accepted by Lutheran theologians as much as Catholic – that “faith alone” (in the sense of “faith” that is merely intellectual) which is devoid of love (ie. not true “fiducia”) is no more saving than works without faith.

      It is no more a mystery that saving love is a gift of God than saving faith. Not for the first time do I suspect that you are restricting the gracious acts of God by your narrow theology of what you regard as right and proper for God to do.

  2. Nathan says:

    “Are you so sure Luther defined the virtue of faith in such a way as to exclude the virtue of love?”

    Yes. If you suggest otherwise, you are suggest that basically all the Lutheran theologians after Luther (not just Lutheran orthodoxy) is mistaken. The Lutheran confessions make this distinction clear. Chronologically speaking, faith ends in love but does not need to begin there.

    See this post and the one before it for what is really at issue: http://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2013/02/10/hope-alone-christs-roman-catholic-candles-part-ii-of-ii/

    +Nathan

    +Nathan

  3. Nathan says:

    “that “faith alone” (in the sense of “faith” that is merely intellectual)”

    Faith is knowledge, assent, and trust.

    +Nathan

    • Schütz says:

      It is the “trust” part that I think needs more exploration, Nathan. How is faith as a mere intellectual exercise different from faith as “trust” – if not in the factor of love implied in that trust? Does a child’s trust in his father “end in love” – or is it not born out of love? What I am saying is that if we put aside our scholastic categories for a moment and see these virtues in their relational dimension – which I believe both BXVI and Luther do – we realize that the sharp distinction between faith and love evident on Lutheran orthodoxy is simply theoretical and not real at all. And it seems to me that this is abundantly evident in the Gospels, in Paul and in James.

  4. Nathan says:

    Schütz,

    There is no faith as a mere intellectual exercise. That is “faith”. Faith always includes trust. Love can be fused with trust, and often is, but it is not necessary for their to be trust. We can trust people we don’t yet love. That is the point. There is nothing theoretical about that reality that we all know is true.

    All that said, of course the person who truly trusts in God comes to love Him. But we get first things first.

    +Nathan

    • Schütz says:

      Well I disagree with that point of view, obviously. It is not new to me. I knew and read such things AS a Lutheran. It was also as a Lutheran pastor that I, together with my fellow Lutheran pastors of the Victorian District of the Lutheran Church of Australia, voted to accept the JDDJ.

      I cannot help but feel that there is a spirit of narrowness within some corners of Lutheranism, which chooses to define “the gospel” and “faith” in such a peculiar manner that they end up denying that any Christian pr Christian community other than themselves truly have faith or truly have the Gospel.

      Thus it is impossible for you to either see the change that has taken place in your Neighbour (you assume that just because we affirm the continuing validity of the definitions of Trent, that nothing has changed in the Church since Trent) or to consider that it is possible for change to take place within Lutheranism without being unfaithful to the 16th Century confessions.

      I read somewhere recently a truism that bears keeping in mind: in order to enter into communion (deep relationship of oneness) with another, it is necessary to be willing to undergo change. One cannot simply expect that the other will change to be like you. We are not talking here about ceasing to be faithful to our true identity, but more deeply encountering the truth of your identity in communion with our brothers and sisters.

      Pope Benedict’s words and example towards Luther and Lutherans is a demonstration that we take the JDDJ seriously and seek a deeper communion with Lutherans. In general we have not seen quite the same openness from the Lutheran side – either from the “liberals” (as you call them) for whom women’s ordination is the true article on which the Church stand or falls or from “confessional” Lutherans who should be our allies, but are too focused on denouncing the Church and Papacy of the past to see or hear the Church and Papacy of the present.

  5. Nathan says:

    Schütz,

    Well, no, I think I for one have been more than eager to believe Rome’s claims. Its just that the more I look at the doctrine and the history, I can’t go there.

    In any case, I have done plenty of listening and will do plenty more.

    From that site:

    “…The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod has by no means been alone in expressing its grave concerns and reservations regarding the Joint Declaration. Here are two notable examples of expressions of concerns by other Lutherans.

    A Statement by 247 German Luther Scholars

    This statement was produced by the world’s premier Luther scholars. Many of the individuals who signed this warning against the JDDJ are without question the 20th century’s top Luther scholars, who have produced studies of Luther that are universally recognized as the best scholarship available on Luther today. It can not be said that these individuals do not understand Luther and or do not understand the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.”

    Also significant links:

    http://web.archive.org/web/20001004124921/http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/documents/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_01081998_off-answer-catholic_en.html

    http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features2007/cmalloy_intervw2_june07.asp

    As it stands, persons continue to talk about all the agreement that was reached when in reality nothing changed. More honesty would be appreciated.

    +Nathan

  6. Nathan says:

    More my view:

    http://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/a-church-within-a-church/

    Perhaps this all really comes down to trust.

    +Nathan

    • Schütz says:

      Trust indeed. From your blog post:

      ” Accordingly, at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, Melanchthon, acting with the full knowledge and support of Luther and the Saxon government, offered restitution of the jurisdiction of the Catholic bishops over the Evangelical congregations on the condition that the bishops ordain Evangelical priests and recognize the legitimacy of Communion in both kinds, clerical marriage, and the Mass in German. This offer remained on the table through all the failed attempts of the 1530?s and 1540?s to find a peaceful solution to the religious divisions in the empire” (LW 59:276).”

      Well, consider the offer of full communion extended. These terms could well be accepted today (which just shows that the Catholic Church HAS changed!). In return, we would ask what was asked of the Anglican’s coming into the Ordinariate: accept the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a true statement of Catholic doctrine. We might even come to the table and acknowledge the same thing about the Augsburg Confession. All things are possible. Unity in Truth and Truth in Unity.

      But you will ask how this can be when Catholic and Lutheran doctrine patently say different things? It is because documents of the past have to live in the present. Over time, we may come to a different perspective on the same issue. We ask ourselves today whether the Catholic/Lutheran split was not a matter of talking past one another, misunderstanding one another, and then getting all hot under the collar at each others and taking our bats and balls and going off to beat our own path through the bush (just to mix metaphors).

      There was a lot of progress during the 16th Century itself on the matter of dialogue, but the two communities simply ran out of patience. Unity in the Church is hard work (look at Pope Benedict’s struggles with the Society of St Pius X). The first thing we must never do is walk away from the table. If something isn’t “good enough” (the JDDJ for instance), lets sit down and talk it all over again. There are indeed issues – major ones – that remain after the JDDJ. It wasn’t the last word, and the declaration itself recognised that. It was a “differentiated agreement”. Personally, I thought it was agreement enough to no longer warrant remaining out of communion with Rome in a state of protestation. Other Lutherans (the bulk of them including the professors who signed the German protest against the JDDJ) obviously disagree.

      But unless I am willing to keep working at it, unless I realise that for the sake of communion I myself have to change (and not just my dialogue partner), we will forever remain divided.

      And such was not the will of our Lord Jesus.

  7. Nathan says:

    Schütz,

    “We ask ourselves today whether the Catholic/Lutheran split was not a matter of talking past one another, misunderstanding one another, and then getting all hot under the collar at each others and taking our bats and balls and going off to beat our own path through the bush (just to mix metaphors).”

    I understand what you are saying. I have been where you are at. I have considered that as a possibility. And knowing what I know now, I simply cannot believe it is true. I think Rome did understand what the Lutherans were saying – and that they rejected it then. As I believe they do now.

    “Well, consider the offer of full communion extended. These terms could well be accepted today (which just shows that the Catholic Church HAS changed!). In return, we would ask what was asked of the Anglican’s coming into the Ordinariate: accept the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a true statement of Catholic doctrine. We might even come to the table and acknowledge the same thing about the Augsburg Confession. All things are possible. Unity in Truth and Truth in Unity.”

    Accepting the RCC catechism means accepting Trent. It is the same content but said differently. And Trent condemns not only our doctrine in some places (note the Lutheran confessions *only* condemn doctrines and not persons), but those who teach our doctrine.

    “There was a lot of progress during the 16th Century itself on the matter of dialogue, but the two communities simply ran out of patience….”

    That’s putting it very generously. I suggest you take a look at this penetrating historical work: http://www.amazon.com/Matthias-Flacius-Survival-Luthers-Reform/dp/0984535101 (read the description and review).

    “Unity in the Church is hard work (look at Pope Benedict’s struggles with the Society of St Pius X). The first thing we must never do is walk away from the table. If something isn’t “good enough” (the JDDJ for instance), lets sit down and talk it all over again.””

    Here are some of my efforts in this area:

    http://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2012/10/31/the-coming-vindication-of-martin-luther-summary-and-conclusion-part-v-of-v/

    http://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2012/06/20/update-on-my-humble-contributions-to-honest-ecumenical-dialogue/

    (there is much more but I will stop there)

    “But unless I am willing to keep working at it, unless I realise that for the sake of communion I myself have to change (and not just my dialogue partner), we will forever remain divided.”

    That’s right. That’s precisely why I talk with persons like yourself. : )

    From the post about Luther’s vindication linked to above:

    “I contend that, in general, our orientation should be to furiously emphasize our commonalities and to furiously emphasize our honest differences, because the truth not spoken – or rarely spoken – in love is not the fullness of love at all. Even some in the unbelieving world know as much! Do you, like me, think of the pagans’ words recorded by Tertullian: “See how they love one another!”? I say yes! Let us aim to love one another in truth as we patiently work through the tragic reality that there must be differences among us – to reveal who has God’s approval!”

    +Nathan

  8. Nathan says:

    Schütz,

    If you haven’t seen it already, I am sure you will like this:

    http://www.canadianlutheran.ca/thoughts-on-the-retirement-of-the-professor-pope/

    a clip:

    “Well, as I recently argued in a review published in the journal of our two Canadian faculties, Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth is a product of sterling scholarship that represents a literary triumph of Mere Christianity, a work in which believing Christians of all confessions may rejoice. Remarkably, just a few months ago the now retiring Pope held a copy of Lutheran Theological Review 24 (in which my review appeared) in his hands. He asked an American prelate working in the Vatican’s State Department to write me a letter of appreciation, noting especially Benedict’s thanks at my remark that he had “provided an ecumenical solution to an ecumenical problem.”

    Debate (Auseinandersetzung) will, of course, continue, and I hope that another Roman Catholic theologian of Ratzinger’s stature will emerge to carry on his work. But, as a frail and exhausted man stricken in years now passes into the annals of history while remaining for a while alive on earth, I express my appreciation, admiration, sympathy, and prayers. And if, as talks between the Vatican and the International Lutheran Council continue, a panel of our theologians should soon sit across from their Roman Catholic counterparts somewhere in the Eternal City and this aged churchman and scholar should shuffle into the room, I would be most interested in what he might yet have to contribute to the discussion.”

    +Nathan

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