Nearly 500 years ago, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a German church, beginning the Protestant Reformation that led millions to break with the Roman Catholic Church and ushered in more than a century of conflict and war.
On Monday, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis will participate in a joint Lutheran-Catholic worship service in Sweden this October, kicking off a series of events planned for 2017 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
The effort to mend relations with Protestants has been on the agenda of many popes before Francis, but it is a delicate endeavor. The worship service in Sweden was billed by its sponsors, the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation, as a “commemoration,” not as a “celebration,” in order to avoid any inappropriate note of triumphalism. Some Catholics have criticized the notion of a pope celebrating the anniversary of a schism.
Ya think? This is insane — just as insane as if Lutheran leaders showed up at a worship service to “commemorate” the Counter Reformation. I’m all for efforts to make peace among our broken Christian communions as best we can, in part because we need each other more than ever. I don’t begrudge Protestants celebrating the Reformation at all, though I think it was a terrible tragedy (as was the Great Schism separating the Roman and the Eastern churches). It is appropriate for Protestants to celebrate throwing off the yoke of Rome. But why on earth would a Pope join in an official event marking that celebration? And he really thinks calling it a “commemoration” for the sake of diplomacy matters? Send the Lutherans your regards, offer them your prayers, but good grief, man, you are the Roman pontiff!
I’ve been reading a lot about Reformation and Counter Reformation history in the past week. It is deeply discouraging to read the way Protestants and Catholics treated each other. Nobody has clean hands. But the many sins of both sides in the Reformation do not obviate the fact that it was about very real and irreconcilable religious ideas. Protestants may regret some of the things the Reformers did to Catholics (and to each other), but to be a Protestant must require you to believe that the Reformation was on balance a good thing. For their part, Catholics may regret much of what the Renaissance Catholic Church did to provoke the Reformation, and may regret the excesses of the Counter Reformation, but if Catholicism is true, then the Reformation was a near-apocalyptic tragedy. But the new Lutheran-Catholic common prayer service approved by Lutheran officials and the Vatican commits Catholics praying it — including, presumably, the Pope when he goes to Sweden this fall — to thank God for the gifts of the Reformation.
How can this or any Pope do this, or approve of it? It makes no sense to me. It’s as if a man and a wife got together to commemorate the occasion of their divorce. As an ex-Catholic, now Orthodox, I can see the fruits of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Roman Catholic Church and its people. I have no problem rejoicing for sanctity when I see it among my Catholic and Protestant brothers and sisters, and praying for their needs. But I cannot imagine going to an ecumenical worship service commemorating, except in unmixed mourning, either the Reformation or the Great Schism (that is, the 1054 split between East and West). Both are immense tragedies, from my point of view, and it would be deeply weird to see Orthodox and Catholic bishops saying prayers thanking God for the “gifts” that emerged from such radical brokenness and failure.
What am I missing here?
By the way, how is the Reformation working out for Sweden? It has the lowest number of Christians of any nation in the West. The Lutheran state church’s Bishop of Stockholm will presumably participate in the event with Pope Francis. She’s a real piece of work, that one:
The Bishop of Stockholm has proposed a church in her diocese remove all signs of the cross and put down markings showing the direction to Mecca for the benefit of Muslim worshippers.
Eva Brunne, who was made the world’s first openly lesbian bishop by the church of Sweden in 2009, and has a young son with her wife and fellow lesbian priest Gunilla Linden, made the suggestion to make those of other faiths more welcome.
The church targeted is the Seamen’s mission church in Stockholm’s eastern dockyards. The Bishop held a meeting there this year and challenged the priest to explain what he’d do if a ship’s crew came into port who weren’t Christian but wanted to pray.
Calling Muslim guests to the church “angels“, the Bishop later took to her official blog to explain that removing Christian symbols from the church and preparing the building for Muslim prayer doesn’t make a priest any less a defender of the faith. Rather, to do any less would make one “stingy towards people of other faiths”.
A recent survey by the Church of Sweden found that about two-thirds of the country’s 9.4 million people belong to the church. Yet only 15 percent of church members say they believe in Jesus Christ. An equal percentage of Swedes call themselves atheists. And only about 400,000 of the roughly 6.6 million members of the church say they attend services at least once a month.
I don’t know how much control individuals have over whether or not to be scandalized by papal missteps, but to the extent that you can suppress it, please do. There’s nothing for it. While entire websites are now devoted to lamenting Pope Francis and the Church’s heterodox hierarchy, I don’t see the point in paying them too much mind. One needn’t peruse exhaustive commentaries on what some pope in the 19th Century said as opposed to what this pope is saying to figure out that something is amiss. Even the Eastern Orthodox, who are generally ill-disposed toward Catholicism (or at least their idea of Catholicism), are starting to realize that something is rotten in Rome, and it’s not just the filioque. It doesn’t take much searching to find Orthodox commentary on the fragile “Great and Holy Council” which points to the Catholic experience of the last 50 years as a dire warning against trying to adjust to the times or become more open to “the world.” The Catholic Church is a real mess and it’s only going to get messier in the decades to come. Contrary to the opinion of some, no prelate from Africa will save Catholicism at this point in history, at least not without the assistance of divine intervention.
It’s understandable that people don’t want to think about this. Life is rough or, I should say, it’s rough trying to have a good bourgeois lifestyle going while being a good Catholic. If one is so inclined to privilege the latter over the former, then it’s going to be even harder to endure the chants and taunts of the world. Why suffer for a confession that its leaders don’t appear to take seriously?
He’s right about the Orthodox Ecumenical Council they’re talking about now. I hope it doesn’t happen at this dangerous moment in history. Vatican II shows how badly things can go awry in this godless age. Anyway, faithful Catholics are going to have to dig in and realize that they are in this together, even if their earthly shepherd has gone rogue.
A follow-up post from Gabriel Sanchez advises his fellow Catholics not to be too caught up with Francis’s antics, and not to waste time and witness yelling about them. Excerpt:
If what we have heard of Vatican politics and intrigue is true (and a great deal of it most likely is), then what we are looking at is for the Catholic Church to be saved not be some “messiah pope” (the fact anybody would hope for one is a scandal) but by the lay faithful, good priests, and the holy bishops willing to lead them through dark times by the light of Truth. The return of Christendom—if it is ever to return before the eschaton—will not come by way of top-down reconfiguration and renovations, but by the same route it came before: Prayer, penance, and perseverance from all strata of the Church and society. Can it happen? Dare we hope? Or should we remain paralyzed in a perpetual state of scandal and righteous indignation? Heaven forbid.
It’s true for the Catholics, and it’s true for the rest of us Christians, I think. That is the rationale for the Benedict Option.
UPDATE: Despite all that, I have to say that this column by the Catholic Bishop Robert Barron is good, especially this part:
The third paragraph of that encyclical [Francis’s “Evangelii Gaudium”)commences with this ecumenically remarkable sentence: “I invite all Christians everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ.” Catholics have tended to be suspicious of the language of personal relationship with Jesus, especially as it has appeared in evangelical Protestant rhetoric over the past half century (accepting Jesus as my “personal Lord and savior”), and this for two basic reasons. First, it seems to undermine or at least lessen the importance of the properly mediating role that the Church appropriately plays, and secondly, it tends to compromise the communitarian dimension of Christian life. I do not for a moment think that Pope Francis is unaware of those dangers, but I think he is more concerned that a hyper-stress on the ecclesial can render Christian life abstract and institutional. In paragraph seven of Evangelii Gaudium, Francis says, “I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: ‘Being a 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.'” Christianity is not a philosophy or a set of ideas, but rather a friendship with Jesus of Nazareth. In paragraph 266, we hear, “It is impossible to persevere in a fervent evangelization unless we are convinced from personal experience that it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him.”
According to Catholic ecclesiology, the Church is not primarily an institution, but rather the prolongation of the Incarnation across space and time, the mystical body of Jesus through which people come to an encounter with the Lord. When this organic relationship between Jesus and his Church is forgotten or occluded, a stifling institutionalism can follow, and this is precisely why Francis insists, “we cannot passively and calmly wait in our church buildings; we need to move from a pastoral ministry of mere conservation to a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry.”
This evangelical urgency, which Pope Francis gets in his bones, is the leitmotif of this entire Apostolic Exhortation. He knows that if Catholicism leads with its doctrines, it will devolve into an intellectual debating society and that if it leads with its moral teaching, it will appear, especially in our postmodern cultural context, fussy and puritanical. It should lead today as it led two thousand years ago, with the stunning news that Jesus Christ is the Lord, and the joy of that proclamation should be as evident now as it was then. The Pope helpfully draws our attention to some of the countless references to joy in the pages of the New Testament: “‘Rejoice!’ is the angel’s greeting to Mary;” in her Magnificat, the Mother of God exults, “My spirit rejoices in God my savior;” as a summation of his message and ministry, Jesus declares to his disciples, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete;” in the Acts of the Apostles, we are told that “wherever the disciples went there was great joy.” The Pope concludes with a wonderfully understated rhetorical question: “Why should we not also enter into this great stream of joy?” Why not indeed? Displaying his penchant for finding the memorable image, Pope Francis excoriates Christians who have turned “into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, ‘sourpusses,'” and whose lives “seem like Lent without Easter.” Such people might be smart and they might even be morally upright, but they will never be successful evangelists.
I still don’t understand why Francis is doing this event in October. But I concede Bishop Barron’s point.