Properly translating the Pope on Luther

I followed very closely the journey of the Holy Father to Rome last week, but didn’t have the leisure to blog on it. I did have time (at work) to put together a list of links and commentary and video to Pope Benedict’s meetings with ecumenical representatives and representatives of Judaism and Islam. You may find this list of links here. I was disappointed that it proved next to impossible to find the texts of the speakers who addressed Papa Benny at these meetings. The speech from the Muslim representative was put up by Vatican Radio, and is well worth reading. But I couldn’t find Bishop Schneider’s address to the Pope or the address from the woman to the Pope at the ecumenical service. Nor could I find the addresses of the collocutors at the meetings with the Orthodox or Jews. I think it important that we have “the other side” of the story, and not just the Pope’s speeches.

Nevertheless, I was looking forward to see the Pope said about Martin Luther – a topic he had to address while visiting Luther’s Friary in Erfurt (and please note, as Franz Posset points out in his book “The Real Luther”, Luther was an Augustinian friar, not a monk – there is a difference). He did say some signficant things, highlighting two of Luther’s key emphases that he implied Catholic theology should have “in common” with Lutheran theology. Unfortunately, in the English version published on the Vatican website and elsewhere, both these emphases were badly translated.

The first emphasis was Luther’s search “for a gracious God”. The Pope rightly said (in his native German) “Wie kriege ich einen gnädigen Gott”, which was badly translated in the English version as ““How do I receive the grace of God?”. The Pope 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? What does the question of God mean in our lives? In our preaching? Most people today, even Christians, set out from the presupposition that God is not fundamentally interested in our sins and virtues. He knows that we are all mere flesh. And insofar as people believe in an afterlife and a divine judgement at all, nearly everyone presumes for all practical purposes that God is bound to be magnanimous and that ultimately he mercifully overlooks our small failings. The question no longer troubles us. But are they really so small, our failings? Is not the world laid waste through the corruption of the great, but also of the small, who think only of their own advantage? …No, evil is no small matter. Were we truly to place God at the centre of our lives, it could not be so powerful. 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.

The second emphasis was Luther’s dictum (again correctly cited by the Pope) “Was Christum treibet”. This was also badly translated in the English reports as “What promotes Christ’s cause”, rather than “What bears Christ” or “What promotes Christ” himself (not his “cause”). Of this 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. [This has been a common theme in Benedict’s writing right from the time he published “Introduction to Christianity”, right up to his encyclicals as Pope.] 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: “What promotes Christ’s cause” [German: “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.

As with Luther, Ratzinger’s theology has always been markedly Christocentric. He seems to be reminding Catholics that our theology must likewise seek “Was Christum treibet”.

He concluded his speech with these words:

The second challenge to worldwide Christianity of which I wish to speak is more profound and in our country more controversial: the secularized context of the world in which we Christians today have to live and bear witness to our faith. God is increasingly being driven out of our society, and the history of revelation that Scripture recounts to us seems locked into an ever more remote past. Are we to yield to the pressure of secularization, and become modern by watering down the faith? Naturally faith today has to be thought out afresh, and above all lived afresh, so that it is suited to the present day. Yet it is not by watering the faith down, but by living it today in its fullness that we achieve this. This is a key ecumenical task in which we have to help one another: developing a deeper and livelier faith. It is not strategy that saves us and saves Christianity, but faith – thought out and lived afresh; through such faith, Christ enters this world of ours, and with him, the living God. As the martyrs of the Nazi era brought us together and prompted that great initial ecumenical opening, so today, faith that is lived from deep within amid a secularized world is the most powerful ecumenical force that brings us together, guiding us towards unity in the one Lord. And we pray to him, asking that we may learn to live the faith anew, and that in this way we may then become one.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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6 Responses to Properly translating the Pope on Luther

  1. PM says:

    Benedict superb as ever.

    The first extract is also very relevant to the abuse crisis which continues to plague us: ‘But are they really so small, our failings? ‘

  2. Chris Burgwald says:

    Thanks for this post, David… I thoroughly concur with you, particularly on the point of Luther’s and Benedict’s Christocentricity.

    Looking at this a bit more broadly, I continue to be struck by a reality which strikes many as paradoxical: here you have a thoroughly Catholic man (Pope Benedict), obviously completely orthodox, who nonetheless does not approach Luther first with the latter’s errors, but with his positives. I know many “JPII men” who don’t seem able to grasp the “ecumenicity” of the Holy Father and his predecessor, and yet to be a “JPII man” requires just that embrace. I think that Benedict in particular shows us the way here: he notes the deep Christocentric orientations of Luther’s life and work, while not ignoring the way in which those orientations became disoriented.

    Finally, a request: any chance you might be able to offer your own translation of the entire address? I find the errors you noted in the official english to be important, and if there are others, I’d like to know them.

    Thanks again, David!

  3. Schütz says:

    My german is nowhere near that good, Chris. I knew these phrases and noted their unusual sound in the translation. The rule seems to be: if in doubt, check yhe original. That goes for all Vatican documents. BTW, i sent a copy of your thesis to Franz Posset. Do you know him? I think the two of you would have much to discuss.

    • Chris Burgwald says:

      Oh well, no harm asking about a translation, right? :-)

      I don’t know Franz, but I look forward to any thoughts he might have… please let him know that.

  4. Gareth says:


    I know you would know greatly more expertise on the subject but I am personally massively turned off when the Pope (or any other Catholic) mentions Luther in a positive or putting it bluntly any manner.

    I am not sure what exactly is to be achieved by it all??

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