That intriguing question was raised after Pope Benedict XVI paid an extraordinary tribute to the father of the Protestant Reformation in a speech to the leadership of the German Lutheran Church on September 23, the second day of his visit to German.
The first German pope since the Reformation met the Lutheran leaders in a private session, behind closed doors, in the Augustinian monastery (Augustinerkloster) at Erfurt, a city in the centre of Germany, where Luther lived, studied theology, was ordained priest between 1506 and 1511. The meeting took place in the very room where Luther took his monastic vows.
The possibility of Luther’s rehabilitation was one of several questions raised at a lively press conference in Erfurt after the pope met with the Lutheran leadership in this charming medieval city of 200,000 people.
In his speech to the Lutherans during that private meeting and discussion, Pope Benedict recalled how “the question of God” was “the deep passion and driving force” of Luther’s “whole life’s journey”. He revealed that he was always impressed by the fact that Luther’s entire “theological searching and inner struggle” had been dominated by one question: “How do I receive the grace of God?”
Few today are asking “this burning question” of “what is God’s position towards me, where do I stand before God”, the Pope commented, but it is one that “must once more become our question too”.
Furthermore, he said, “Luther’s thinking, his whole spirituality, was thoroughly Christocentric”, while the question “What promotes God’s cause’ was for Luther the decisive interpretive criterion “for the exegesis of sacred scripture”.
Pope Benedict hailed Luther as “a great witness of the faith” Father Federico Lombardi, Director of the Vatican Press Office, confirmed to journalists at the press conference. Fr Hans Langendorfer, Secretary of the German Bishops Conference and the visit’s Coordinator, said the pope had described Luther as “a true believer”.
The President of the German Lutheran Church Council, Nikolaus Schneider”, agreed with this reading and said the pontiff’s words represented “a strong honouring of Luther”.
Asked whether this meant that Luther who was excommunicated in 1521 could be rehabilitated, the President of the Synod of German Lutheran Church, Kartrin Gorin-Eckardt, said “the reappraisal had already taken place” because the Pope has actually spoken about “the entire trajectory” of Luther’s life. Schneider, for his part, had no doubt: “the process” of rehabilitation “has already begun”.
Earlier, in his speech welcoming the pope, Schneider had suggested that Luther could be “a hinge between our churches, because he belongs to both”.
Cardinal Kurt Koch, however, responding on this and the question of rehabilitation said that while there was much positive to say about Luther, it should also be recognised that Luther was not exactly a saint in all that he said and did. Schneider promptly commented that for Protestants “Luther is not just an untouchable hero. We do not see him in that light at all!”
Schneider, in his speech and at the press conference, argued that “it is time to heal the memories of the mutual injuries in the Reformation period and the subsequent history of our Churches. It is time to take real steps for reconciliation”. The cardinal openly welcomed this proposal.
One issue, however, revealed most acutely that there are still significant divisions between Catholic and Lutheran leaders on how to move forward to achieve reconciliation and unity: the question of intercommunion.
At the press conference, Schneider revealed that he had raised the question with the pope about the possibility that Christians living in ‘interdenominational marriages and families” be allowed “to partake more freely in Eucharistic fellowship, in the foreseeable future”. He said viewed this as a step on the road to unity.
The Pope did not respond directly this proposal in his meeting with the Lutherans, he said. The answer, however, seemed implicit in his speech when he emphasised that “the first and most important thing for ecumenism is that we keep in mind just how much we have in common” adding that “it was the error of the Reformation period that for the most part we could only see what divided us”. Moreover, he warned against “watering the faith down” urging that it be lived “in its fullness”.
Cardinal Koch, who had privately also discussed the question with Schneider, made very clear that such intercommunion is not on the horizon, as theological questions such as the common understanding of Church must first be resolved before it can happen. He also remarked that by creating “exemptions”, one risked opening the doors all together.
The negative response on this question of inter-communion, and the fact that Pope Benedict had not brought any new concrete initiatives – “no ecumenical gifts” was the expression used - appears to have disappointed many Protestants according to reports in the German media after the ecumenical dialogue in Erfurt.
At the press conference, however, all the speakers offered a more upbeat reading of the Pope’s visit here and the ecumenical dialogue in general. They highlighted the achievements reached over the past 30 years in this field during which animosity has been replaced by friendliness, and agreement has been reached by Catholics and Lutherans on the question of justification which had been at the heart of Luther’s contrast with Rome, and recalled how the then Cardinal Ratzinger had played a key role in this.
Everyone agreed on the great importance of the Pope’s tribute to Luther, which seemed to suggest the possibility of new horizons for the dialogue.
Lutheran President Schneider revealed that he had invited Pope Benedict to participate in the celebrations for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 and, both he and Cardinal Koch looked forward to making some headway towards “the healing of memories”, by that date.