The 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation presents a quandary for a person like me who has recently left a daughter church of the Reformation to become Roman Catholic. How should someone in my shoes respond to such a momentous occasion?
Fortunately, Pope Francis gave me some idea of the answer just a few days ago. Speaking to a delegation from the Church of Scotland, the pope said, “Let us thank the Lord for the great gift of being able to live this year in true fraternity, no longer as adversaries, after long centuries of estrangement and conflict.”
As an Anglican, I always found the yearly celebration of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses by some Protestants to be strange and a bit embarrassing. Ironically, now as a Catholic, while I cannot quite say that I will be celebrating the anniversary of Luther’s protest, I do find that there is much to be celebrated in the movement of the Holy Spirit in the last 100 years that has allowed Catholics and Protestants to see each other’s gifts.
The Second Vatican Council was quite elegant in describing the importance of ecumenism and the need for Christians to recognize each other as brothers and sisters. “Anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can be a help to our own edification,” the Church teaches in Unitatis redintigratio. “Whatever is truly Christian is never contrary to what genuinely belongs to the faith; indeed, it can always bring a deeper realization of the mystery of Christ and the Church.”
The Holy Spirit has given gifts to all people who love Jesus and follow him as Lord. These gifts are meant to be shared with the Church as a whole. As long as we remain separated from one another, we are impoverished by not being able to share in what God has given us. We need each other.
I can understand why Protestants want to celebrate the anniversary of the inaugural event of the Reformation and why they find calls to lament it instead to be frustrating. In a recent Mockingbird post, Sarah Condon expressed her irritation with “progressive dudes” who express sadness about the Reformation because of the divisions that followed it. “Here’s the deal banana peel: I would not be ordained if it were not for the Protestant Reformation. Period. I wouldn’t be married to my husband either.”
For Condon, celebrating the Reformation’s beginning seems to have little to do with that moment in history. After all, Martin Luther was as opposed to the ordination of women as anyone else in his day, and a repeal of clerical celibacy, while ancillary to Luther’s aims, was hardly a central tenet of his Reformation. Later in the article, Condon takes a passing stab at presenting a broader Protestant polemic, but it is clear that the matter is more personal for her than historical. In her estimation, she would not be able to be who she is were it not for what Luther did. Those who criticize the Reformation therefore are criticizing her, not just a moment in history or a doctrinal dispute.
While I do not share the same theological commitments as Condon, I do think that the best way to honor the complex history of Christian division in the past five centuries is by focusing on where we are today rather than constantly litigating the past. “The past cannot be changed,” says Pope Francis. “Yet today we at last see one another as God sees us. We are first and foremost his children, reborn in Christ through one baptism, and therefore brothers and sisters.”
That a pope can say that today is a remarkable achievement and one that would not have been possible before Vatican II. There are still today some Protestants who do not believe that Catholics are Christians at all. My parents can easily remember a time when Catholic children and Protestant children were not allowed to play together, let alone pray together. In my last parish as an Episcopal priest, there were parishioners who vividly remembered the insults they suffered as Protestant children growing up in Catholic neighborhoods outside of Philadelphia because they were “publics,” meaning that they attended public school. These things are largely relegated to the past now. That this has happened in just a couple of generations is a more remarkable work of the Holy Spirit than we generally acknowledge.
None of this is to say that our problems have ceased. There are still very real doctrinal and ecclesial issues that divide us as Christians. Things like the nature of salvation, the role of the papacy in the governance of the Church, and the meaning and efficacy of the Sacraments are sticking points that divide Protestant groups from one another as much as they divide Protestants from Catholics. Ecumenism becomes vacuous and self-serving if it does not continually address these issues.
But if we do really believe that traditional Protestants and Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ, then it must grieve us that we do not yet share a common witness. At the same time, the greater unity that we have achieved today than in any other time since the Reformation has to give us some sense of joy.
The vision of ecumenism presented by Vatican II is one of the things that drew me to the Catholic Church. While it is not a vision that most Protestants are likely to embrace wholeheartedly, it offers a beacon of hope for a future in which all those who seek to follow Christ can be together as one. The document on mission, Ad gentes, says, “[E]xcluding any appearance of indifference or confusion on the one hand, or of unhealthy rivalry on the other, Catholics should cooperate in a brotherly spirit with their separated brethren, … making before the nations a common profession of faith, insofar as their beliefs are common, in God and in Jesus Christ, and cooperating in social and in technical projects as well as in cultural and religious ones.”
I do not know what Luther would think of that, or Condon for that matter, but I think it is wonderful. It is in Christ that we find what makes us whole. It is in him that we find out who we really are.
So, my Protestant friends, I will not rain on your parade. Enjoy your celebrations. But I hope that in the midst of them, there is room to remember how far we have come and how much the Holy Spirit still has for us to do as we seek unity along the path of discipleship.