Another call to "de-excommunicate" Luther

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.

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122 Responses to Another call to "de-excommunicate" Luther

  1. Carlo says:

    There have been many popes and saints before John Paul II. Here are a couple of samples to meditate upon:

    Pope Eugene IV, Council of Florence, “Letentur coeli,” Sess. 6, July 6, 1439, ex cathedra: “We define also that… the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go straightaway to Hell, but to undergo punishments of different kinds.”

    St. Alphonsus on the damnation of the impure: “Continue, O fool, says St. Peter Damian (speaking to the unchaste), continue to gratify the flesh; for the day will come in which thy impurities will become as pitch in thy entrails, to increase and aggravate the torments of the flame which will burn thee in Hell: ‘The day will come, yea rather the night, when thy lust shall be turned into pitch, to feed in thy bowels the everlasting fire.” (Preparation for Death, abridged version, p. 117)

  2. Frank says:

    Luther’s Spirituality:

    “It is right and lawful to slay at the first opportunity a rebellious person, who is known as such, for he is already under God’s and the emperor’s ban. Every man is at once judge and executioner of a public rebel; just as, when a fire starts, he who can extinguish it first is the best fellow. Rebellion is not simply vile murder, but is like a great fire that kindles and devastates a country; it fills the land with murder and bloodshed, makes widows and orphans, and destroys everything, like the greatest calamity. Therefore, whosoever can, should smite, strangle, and stab, secretly or publicly, and should remember that there is nothing more poisonous, pernicious, and devilish than a rebellious man. Just as one must slay a mad dog, so, if you do not fight the rebels, they will fight you, and the whole country with you.” From his Against the Peasants.

  3. frdamian says:


    the only sites which seem to include the direct wording you have posted above, including the rather obvious misspelling of the name of the Decree of Union of the Council of Florence are sites which question the orthodoxy of the Popes. The very first google search brings up a site on Benedict XVI’s latest heresy.

  4. Carlo says:

    I just read this. It is truly astonishing. What was Luther, if not a rebellious man?

  5. Vicci says:

    Hi David,

    “ANd by the way on whose authority can you say that Pope Leo’s Bull is only for his lifetime. I tell you that the teachings of the Popes are for all Catholics and at all times.”

    “I’m with Frank on the Luther question. The Church has said all that needs to be said about him, and there is no point in trying to rehabilitate the reputation of a man who was the most notorious heretic in Church history and who is already burning in Hell for all eternity.”

    – welcome to Catholicism 101 !
    Just makes you want to open your arms and embrace, doesn’t it!

    (have a lovely trip. Have a think.
    Keep close to your wife. And make sure you find a ‘Catholic Church’
    that your heart can embrace…not just your intellect. It’s really that important.Very sincerely, V.)

  6. Carlo says:

    Truth can be found anywhere Fr Damian. I don’t have the sort of reference library that a priest might have access to, so I am reduced to finding this material on these out-of-the-way websites. Nonetheless, their authenticity still stands. Perhaps you could post some of these quotes from popes and saints on your parish website so that faithful Catholics like myself don’t have to put our souls in peril by straying into these dangerous waters.

  7. frdamian says:


    “Truth can be found anywhere…”

    Even in Luther’s writings? :)

  8. Frank says:

    I don’t think that’s funny Fr given that Luther caused and obviously continues to cause great distress for some…and yes if Truth is found anywhere it is Catholic Truth anyway.

  9. Siddha Jacky says:

    Matthias, I don’t reject Jesus any more than I reject you. In fact I am fascinated by the man and venerate him, but I have not the slightest interest in the endless nonsense that is spoken and written about him by those who are pleased to call themselves his followers. And for the record, no, I am not a Buddhist, but I have a great admiration for their guy as well.

  10. Siddha Jacky says:

    Vicci, I salute your generous heart.

  11. Louise says:

    I am fascinated by the man and venerate him, but I have not the slightest interest in the endless nonsense that is spoken and written about him by those who are pleased to call themselves his followers.

    I can’t quite work out why you would venerate a man who went round behaving like a god. It is as CS Lewis said, either he was a lunatic or a liar or the Lord (ie God).

    There is nothing in the Gospels which shows Him to be just “a good man.”

  12. Siddha Jacky says:

    Depends what you mean by “behaving like a god”. On one interpretation of that phrase, it would seem to me entirely appropriate to venerate such a man. If he was “behaving like a god” because he was living at all times in the divine presence, why wouldn’t you venerate him?

    I don’t recall ever saying he was “just a good man”. For one thing, he wasn’t entirely good. He had a bit of mongrel in him. We know very little about him for certain, and a lot of what we think we know is contradicted by the other bits. The one thing I am sure of is that he was a heretic. I am also sure that that is why he was killed, and I think it is deeply ironic that his followers went on to do the same thing to those who disagreed with them. I doubt he would have approved.

  13. matthias says:

    You know what Louise ,i would forget engaging on this any further because we have here someone who doubts the Scriptures,who would even doubt what Josephus would say about Him. Jesus attended the synagogue as was His normalpractice. “Mongrel in Him” for upsetting the merchants who were selling merchandise in the Temple-more righteous indignation.
    No I think your problem my old Hippy friend is that you have read to much of certain theologians like John AT Robinson,bultmann ,spong and Funk,who talk in the same manner as what you do.He was “killed” for our sins ,as prophesied in the prophet isaiah and as David spoke of in the 22nd Psalm. I saw my brother descend into the same spiritual beliefs as you have Siddha,and he was at one stage a protege of Gordon Moyes,but his theological education (?) turned him into a cynic. Now a socialist ,he has expressed the belief that were he to return to Christianity it would be as a Catholic-after visiting ci.stercian abbeys in France and Belgium .Perhaps Siddha my last word to you is to look up Taize and see what they have to say.
    Schutz aufwedersein.

  14. Joshua says:

    Well, for those without faith Christ is “just a man” as that song from Godspell put it – but for those who believe, He is Lord, the Second Person of the Trinity become Incarnate to save us. From the outside it must look like madness, but we hold it to be true.

    Of course I can offer no proof of this – else it would not require faith – but I can demonstrate that it is reasonable and possible: if God exists, it is possible for God, without ceasing to be divine (for that is obviously impossible) to so unite a human body and soul to Himself that the godhead and the human nature are one person: the Athanasian Creed puts it somewhat like this – “As soul and body are one man, so divinity and humanity are one Christ.”

    It is foolish to look at the history of Christianity and see only the black spots, and so magnify them that the great good effected by Christian doctrine and morals is obscured; only in our age of license and disbelief could such a fraudulent misrepresentation find acceptance – not because it is true that Christianity overall brought evils, but because modern unbelievers want to believe that, so as to salve their own consciences and allow themselves the better to wallow in the mire.

  15. Siddha Jacky says:

    How wrong can you be Matthias? I’ve read too much of “John AT Robinson,bultmann ,spong and Funk”, have I? I’ve vaguely heard of Spong but the best I could say about him is that his name is splendidly Pythonesque. As for the others – never heard of them. I wouldn’t waste my time reading Christian theologians, especially Protestant ones, because they all labour under the same delusions that afflict 99% of Christians. They cannot approach questions of ultimate reality without several sets of blinkers on, so anything they have to say has no value to me. Frankly, I’d rather read poetry.

    I’m sad about what happened to your brother, especially the bit about him wanting to become a Catholic, but I wouldn’t touch Gordon Moyes with a 12.192-metre barge pole. I’d never heard of Taize before you mentioned it, so thank you for advancing my education, but after having a quick look at a few websites it sounds like my idea of purgatory. Maybe even hell. I’m sure you mean well, but no thanks.

  16. Siddha Jacky says:

    You make quite a lot of presumptions Joshua. You presume that faith can only be defined as denial of reason; you presume that I see only the dark side of Christianity; you presume that my denial of your version of Christian history condemns me to wallow in the mire; and finally, you presume that I somehow make an active choice to wallow in that mire.

    A few facts for you to contemplate: I have faith; I acknowledge the positive contribution of Christianity to human culture; and I have felt much freer, lighter and closer to God since I left the church behind than I ever did while I was in it.

  17. Joshua says:

    Easy there, I wasn’t speaking of you (about whom I know almost nothing) but of agnostics and atheists.

    Could you tell us a bit about what church you were a member of, and why you disassociated yourself therefrom?

    I ask because I have heard priests talk about women who had once been active members of their parishes, but who, ten years later, had given up on organized religion altogether, and said similar things about it to what I have gathered you say…

    After all, this is an ecumenical blog, so let’s share.

  18. matthias says:

    Siddha this is mylast com here in this topic,but the theologians I mentioned might be proddy’s but it is questionable as to whether they are Christian. Go look them up ,as for Moyes I agree with you there,but as for Ultimate Reality i will disagree with you and agree to differ but after you die in many years time let me know what ultimate reality is will you?? Yes i too knew the freedom when i left the church,and felt closer to God ,but I missed the company of Christians-frail fallible weak human beings that they are.

  19. Siddha Jacky says:

    Well first of all Joshua, I’m not a woman. I’ll leave you to choose from the alternatives. I was raised a Catholic, but left it as soon as I grew up.

    Where do I start with the reasons? The teachings on sex and contraception; the culture of coercion, driven by fear of damnation; the obsession with sin and the little ‘self’; the scandalous indoctrination of children before their critical faculties were developed – and that’s just for starters.

    As I grew older and discovered that it was possible to live the life of the spirit without any of these encumbrances, I came to see just how destructive the institution of the church was to genuine spirituality. The older I get, the more I am confirmed in that judgement as I begin to shake off the legacy of my “Christian formation”.

    I regard the church as terminally moribund, and if anything is to rise from its ashes, it will be something entirely different from what we have had for the last couple of millennia.

  20. Siddha Jacky says:

    Matthias, call me naive, but I hope to discover the nature of ultimate reality well before I cash in my chips. We were put on this earth to live, not just to die.

    Nothing wrong with frail, fallible, weak human beings Matthias, but let’s not hold that up as some sort of ideal. We can’t let Jesus hog all the enlightenment.

  21. Joshua says:

    I suppose we come from different spheres; I really don’t perceive any culture of coercion in the Church (frankly, if Christians did fear damnation at least that’d be a start – but really, who does these days?), these days no one obsesses about sin (again, if only they did!), and I have no idea what you mean by “the scandalous indoctrination of children before their critical faculties were developed” – what indoctrination? Do you mean teaching children their catechism like they did in the olden days?

    As for the hoary old chestnut about sex and contraception, well, most Catholics seem to ignore all that (not that they should!), and if you were to read JPII’s Theology of the Body you’d find there’s a lot of very well reasoned theological argument in favour of the traditional teachings on the subject.

    Myself, I would imagine that being separated from the doctrine, sacraments and liturgical life of the Church would rather disembody belief and let it float off into some vague spirituality or mysticism (using these terms in the pejorative sense).

    No offence meant, of course: obviously we have very different viewpoints, and may consider each other’s opinions as odd, but quot homines tot sententiæ.

    Do you believe in God, and if so, in God as the Trinity? (I am curious, please humour me.)

  22. Siddha Jacky says:

    So Joshua, I shouldn’t worry about all these problems I have with the church, because no-one believes in those things any more, but you and others like you think they still should. Well, forgive me if I don’t find that argument compelling.

    Now, as to belief in God, that is a question I always find hard to answer because the idea of God is so ill-defined, and because “belief” in this context seems an odd concept to me.

    Firstly, the Trinity is a nonsensical and utterly unnecessary complication. It alienates thoughtful and well-intentioned people, sometimes estranging them from the spiritual life permanently, which is a tragedy.

    Secondly, the divine is something to be experienced rather than believed in. We can believe what we like about the divine, but that won’t alter in any way what it is in itself. I see it as my task to discover the divine, not to erect a huge edifice of belief in honour of it. I want to find out for myself what it is rather than adopting someone else’s ideas about it, or constructing ideas of my own. God is just a concept, and I want to go beyond that.

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