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.