This story pops up every now and again. It is in vain that we try to explain that there is no point to lifting an excommunication from a dead man, when excommunication ends at the moment of death anyway.
But that misses the point. If we were honest, we would acknowledge that what Dr Gassmann is asking for in his call to “declare officially that its [the Catholic Church’s] excommunication of Martin Luther no longer applies” is a re-evaluation by the Church of the founding father of the school of theology to which Dr Gassmann belongs.
The fact is that that is a complicated business. We have seen that even with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, there is some question as to the exact degree of agreement that has been reached. (Chris Burgwald’s dissertation “The Sinfulness of the Justified” seems to offer enough evidence that, while the JDDJ does not actually succeed in doing what it claims to have done – ie. overcoming a “church-dividing” issue (if it had done so, why are we still divided?) – it does go some way to uncovering possible future directions along this line.)
On Saturday I am giving a lecture to our “School of Prayer” on Lutheran Spirituality. It may surprise some readers of this blog that in fact I often come across features in Catholic spirituality that are very close (if not identical) to Lutheran doctrine. Chris Burgwald cites one of them in his dissertation: St Therese of Lisieux’s statement
“In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in our eyes. I with, tehn, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself.”
The simple fact is that such ideas are more often to be found in writings on spiritual theology rather than dogmatic theology, which points to the fact that the greater part of Lutheran doctrine was concerned with pastoral and experiental theology rather than objective and metaphysical theology.
My point is that there are certainly aspects of Luther’s theology which can and ought to be re-evaluated. Not only is there much in his theology which agrees with Catholic theology, but there is much that could bring greater insight into the Gospel and a more lively application of the doctrines of the faith in the lives of Catholic believers.
At the same time there are real errors in his theology which the Church will never be able to grant or re-evaluate positively. Luther is a tree on which there is rich and healthy fruit, but also some fruit that is infected and unhealthy.
Perhaps then, the first step towards “rehabilitating” Luther would be to adopt a somewhat more nuanced judgement, one which neither attempted to declare everything he taught to be heresy, nor attempted to raise him to the level of a doctor of the Church. We need to learn to make distinctions – something which I believe Dr Martin himself once declared was the core of the theological endeavour.
My personal judgement is that we should make a distinction between Luther’s spirituality and the specifically Lutheran doctrines that arose out of an application of that spirituality in a polemical attitude towards the Catholic Church. When I describe myself as “a Lutheran in communion with the bishop of Rome”, it is Lutheran spirituality, not Lutheran doctrine which characterises my Lutheran-ness. In every case of dogmatic theology, I submit to the teachings of the Catholic Church. But, when divorced from the polemics which surrounded them in the 16th Century, Luther’s spiritual insights are truly valuable. Luther’s theology of the Cross, his Christocentrism, his understanding of the Deus revelatus and Deus absconditus, even the famous “simul” (when understood as simul justus et concupiscentius – David Yeago is surely right when he points out that Catholics and Lutherans do not differ in their doctrine of concupiscence, only in their moral evaluation of it as sin “in the strict sense”) all give life and depth to the true faith of the Catholic Church.
I believe that the ultimate error of the Lutheran Church (and perhaps even Luther himself?) was to raise the deeply mystical insights of Luther’s spirituality to the level of public dogma – and then to rob it of all vitality by developing it into a scholastic system. How else was it possible for them to make the claim that “justification by faith alone” (which is ultimately a spiritual and mystical insight) was “the article” (ie. a dogmatic proposition) “on which the Church stands or falls”? It may very well be an insight upon which the individual believer’s relationship with God stands or falls (this is spiritual and pastoral theology) but can it be said to be the doctrine by which all other dogma is to be judged (this is dogmatic theology)?
It is ironic that the Lutherans allowed a mystical insight to trump the actual dogma of the Church, because Luther himself was a critic of mystics and enthusiasts who did not submit their ideas to the “external Word”. For Catholic spiritual theologians, the “external Word” is always that which the Church teaches. Personal mysticism submits to public magisterium.
All this being said, when Luther’s spiritual insights ARE submissive to the dogma of the Church, they have great benefit and great power. I for one would happily see a refreshed evaluation of these aspects of Luther’s teaching in the Church today.