Someone once asked Dr. Martin E. Marty, the great church historian, “If Luther were alive today, what would he be writing theses about?”
I find myself wondering if Luther would still be in hot debate with Roman Catholicism today. I realize that the Catholic language of sacrifice in the Mass has remained much the same as it was in Luther’s time. That bothered Luther a great deal. Today’s Catholic understanding of the Mass, however, really isn’t much different than what one would find in most Protestant Communion services. At least, there seems to be a whiff of such an understanding. Perhaps the Roman Catholic Church has simply articulated the message clearer than was understood before.
Furthermore, observing the modern Catholic teachings on Paul’s Letters to the Romans and the Galatians, the Catholic Church pays due attention to the roles of faith and grace, something again central to Luther’s teaching. I think Luther would have been happily smiling at what Catholicism teaches regarding those things today. I don’t think today he would have so great a problem as he did in 1517.
Plus, Vatican Council II truly reformed the Roman Church to a degree that the Council of Trent did not. Trent was a strict lock-down against Luther and the Swiss Reformers. It took 150 years for the Church to cool down. And why not? Luther had led to the fragmentation of the Western Church.
Will there ever be a reunited Western Church? Can the old wounds be healed to the point of reunification within the Western Church? It certainly does not seem probable or even plausible.
What we now have in the western world, indeed globally, are national churches and even independent churches with absolutely no eye towards a central authority within the Church. There is a reason that the Church of England is called by that name. The African Methodist-Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church has its own rich culture and history that has never known connection with the church in Rome.
These church denominations at least have dioceses that have some accountability and authority as a group. The non-denominational or independent churches, however, are (in many cases) strictly autonomous and without submission or accountability to anyone. Once a group or an individual has experienced that type of independence, it is difficult imagining them returning to a place of submission to a hierarchy.
Can there at least be meaningful dialogue and fruitful cooperation? Most assuredly, it happens already. Especially with Pope Francis who has reached out to Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Judaism and Islam. Francis has championed forgiveness with as much fervor as Martin Luther did. That may be Luther’s longest legacy—the triumph of forgiveness.
Luther also stands as the greatest single factor in increasing the value of the individual. What eventually emerges from Luther and the Enlightenment Period is a new kind of individual. That made democratic government possible. The role of the single voter, the single voice, is critical to modern democracies. This, of course, is under assault in our time with the cacophonous voices of the corporations raised in opposition to the individual. If Luther were alive now, he would nail a new 95 Theses to the doors of CitiGroup.
Along with that, Luther contributed to the rising status of women. Sure, he was patriarchal but we must remember not to judge people outside the context of their time and—for his day—Luther was progressive. He simply assumed that girls, along with boys, should be taught the catechism. In that regard, he anticipated co-education by a couple of hundred years.
He insisted that marriage was just as important a vocation as monasticism, and in that he accorded greater status to a woman’s role in marriage. Like the samurai of Japan, he believed in the authority of the environment. Women were certainly superior in the home. And Luther was married to and proud of a woman (the former nun, Katarina von Bora) who was, in effect, the treasurer, manager, and administrator of a rather complex business—the informal boarding house that the Luthers kept in the old monastery.
Speaking of Luther’s concept of vocation, he highlighted the connection between the gospel of forgiveness and vocation and, if that connection were understood properly, guilt and worry would diminish. Luther taught that each day is a new start. We are not shackled by what was nor are haunted by our future. Again, Luther and Francis would be teaching from the same viewpoint.
Finally, Luther and Pope Francis both teach us not to try to gain God on God’s own level but on the human level. We see God as in a cloud chamber of particle physics—not seen directly, but seen in effects on the world around us. As Luther said, “we must be content to see, not the face, but the hind parts of God.”