David Yeago, in his essay The Catholic Luther, argues the breach between Luther and Rome was not inevitable: that it was the particular circumstances of how the debate between Luther and Rome was conducted between 1517 and 1519 that led Rome to identify Luther as a heretic and Luther to conclude that the Pope was the Antichrist. As Yeago puts it, the schism arose from:
contingent human choices in a confused historical context defined less by clear and principled theological argument (though that of course was present) than by a peculiar and distinctively sixteenth-century combination of overheated and ever-escalating polemics, cold-blooded Realpolitik, and fervid apocalyptic dreaming.
It’s instructive to compare this with how the church dealt with Franciscanism. St Francis was, of course, a very different figure from Luther, but the Franciscans were in many ways a challenging, even scandalous, group in the eyes of many “respectable” Catholic Christians of the time, and it is not inconceivable that more of Francis’ followers could have followed the Fraticelli into schism had the church authorities handled things less adeptly. As Chesterton puts it in his biography of St Francis:
Saint Francis was so great and original a man that he had something in him of what makes the founder of a religion. Many of his followers were more or less ready, in their hearts, to treat him as the founder of a religion. […] That was the point the Pope had to settle; whether Christendom should absorb Francis or Francis Christendom. And he decided rightly, apart from the duties of his place; for the Church could include all that was good in the Franciscans and the Franciscans could not include all that was good in the Church.
And then there’s the fascinating 1984 interview with the-then Cardinal Ratzinger (PDF), in which Ratzinger distinguishes between the “Catholic” Luther of “his catechism, his songs and his liturgical directives”, whose work can be interpreted “with evangelical churchliness in mind”, and the Luther of “a theological and polemical opus of revolutionary radicality”. Again, this seems to confirm Yeago’s hunch that, at least in theory, a different outcome was possible, in which the “evangelical churchliness” remained but the “revolutionary radicality” (and in particular the identification of the Pope with the Antichrist) was omitted.
So if Yeago is right, and Luther’s theological insights could (in different circumstances and with different personalities involved on all sides) have been absorbed into Christendom without resulting in a schism, what would the result have been? In many ways this is an impossible task: the split between Lutheranism and Rome occurred so early that anti-papalism is inherent to almost every Lutheran confession and to Lutheran self-identity. The schism also led the Roman Catholic Church (at Trent) to define its doctrines in ways that increased (or made clearer) the incompatibility of Roman Catholic doctrine with the teachings of Luther and his followers.
However, we can perhaps speculate on a parallel universe in which “Lutheranism” became a movement of devotional and catechetical renewal within the Catholic church, especially among the laity and secular clergy, say. Phillip Cary’s essay The Lutheran Codicil: From Augustine’s Grace to Luther’s Gospel gives a good idea of what the fundamental principle of this “Lutheranism” would have been: the gospel as an “efficiacious sacramental promise”; the Word as itself a sacrament, according to a very medieval notion of sacramental efficacy. I find it hard to believe that this insight of Luther’s (which Cary identifies as the true “Reformation breakthrough”) was itself impossible to reconcile with Catholic orthodoxy.
What would the features of this movement have been, flowing from this sacramental understanding of the Word? A book like Gene Veith’s The Spirituality of the Cross, which presents a largely positive and unpolemical account of Lutheranism, is a good place to go for ideas on this. But some of the key positive principles in Lutheranism that could surely have found a place within a united Catholic church are:
- An emphasis on seeking God’s promise in his Word and laying hold of it by faith, with a consequent preference for the word and sacraments over “sacramentals” (though without necessarily rejecting or condemning these).
- Improvements in lay catechesis and in the education of pastors, centred on the Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the sacraments.
- Greater congregational involvement in the liturgy, certainly through the singing of vernacular hymns, with perhaps some pressure towards the introduction of vernacular liturgy.
- More frequent communing by the laity, perhaps even weekly, and with some pressure towards allowing communion in both kinds.
- A fresh respect for, and joy in, the ordinary callings of life as themselves “vocations” in which the laity are used by God to serve their neighbour.
In other words, something looking, in many respects, rather similar to the more sober and conservative outcomes of the Second Vatican Council.
Again, I emphasise: all this can, tragically, be little more than speculation. But it is interesting to move from this to Bo Giertz’s suggestion (in Christ’s Church) that:
if the gulf between Rome and Wittenberg was a few yards, then the distance between the authentic evangelical faith and the neo-Protestant culture religion equals the distance between sun and moon.
Lutheranism’s long self-identification of itself as standing with other Protestant traditions against Rome has perhaps obscured that. Maybe a thought experiment like that attempted in this post can help us see the truth of what Giertz was saying.