Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder
A Pope Like None Before. Somewhat Protestant
The idyll between Francis and the followers of Luther. The alarm of cardinals and bishops against the “Protestantization” of the Catholic Church. But also the distrust of authoritative Lutheran theologians
by Sandro Magister
ROME, July 22, 2016 – In the alarmed letter that thirteen cardinals from five continents were preparing to deliver to Pope Francis at the beginning of the last synod, they were warning him against leading the Catholic Church as well to “the collapse of liberal Protestant churches in the modern era, accelerated by their abandonment of key elements of Christian belief and practice in the name of pastoral adaptation:”
Then at the last moment the thirteen deleted these two lines from the letter that was actually put into the hands of the pope. But today they would put them back in word for word, seeing the ever more pronounced idyll that is developing between Francis and the followers of Luther.
On October 31, Jorge Mario Bergoglio will fly to Lund, Sweden, where he will be met by the local female bishop, to celebrate together with the Lutheran World Federation the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. And the closer that date gets, the more sympathy the pope manifests for the great heretic.
At the last of his in-flight press conferences, on the way back from Armenia, he sang the praises of Luther. He said that he was moved by the best of intentions, and that his reform was “medicine for the Church,” skimming over the essential dogmatic divergences that for five centuries have pitted Protestants and Catholics against each other, because – these are again his words, this time spoken in the Lutheran temple of Rome – “life is greater than explanations and interpretations”:
The ecumenism of Francis is made like this. The primacy goes to the gestures, the embraces, some charitable act done together. He leaves doctrinal disagreements, even the most profound, to the discussions of theologians, whom he would gladly confine “to a desert island,” as he loves to say only half-jokingly.
The hitherto unsurpassed proof of this approach of his was, last November 15 during his visit to the Lutherans of Rome, the response that he gave to a Protestant woman who asked him if she could receive communion at Mass together with her Catholic husband.
The response from Francis was a phantasmagorical whirlygig of yes, no, I don’t know, you figure it out. But not because the pope didn’t know what to say. His expressive “fluidity” was intentional. It was his way of bringing everything back into discussion, making everything thinkable and therefore practicable:
Right on cue, in fact, came “La Civiltà Cattolica,” the magazine of the Rome Jesuits that has now become the grapevine of the Casa Santa Marta, to confirm that yes, Francis had wanted to convey precisely this: that even Protestants can receive communion at a Catholic Mass:
> Communion For All, Even For Protestants (1.7.2016)
It is laying it on a bit thick when Cardinal Gerhard L. Müller, prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, says that “we Catholics do not have any reason to celebrate October 31, 1517, the beginning of the Reformation that led to the rupture of Western Christendom.”
Pope Francis isn’t even listening to him and is joining the party, indifferent that Müller – who was in fact one of the thirteen cardinals of the memorable letter – sees it as another step toward the “Protestantization” of the Catholic Church:
> How Cardinal Müller Is Rereading the Pope (29.3.2016)
A pope like Bergoglio, in reality, would not be distasteful to a modern Luther. No more indulgences or purgatory, which five centuries ago were the spark of the rupture. And instead a superlative exaltation of divine mercy, which washes away gratis the sins of all:
It is not a given, however, that the idyll is reciprocated by all Protestants. In Italy, their historical root is constituted by the minuscule but lively Waldensian Church. And its two most illustrious theologians, Giorgio Tourn and Paolo Ricca – both of the same generation as Bergoglio and both formed in the school of the leading Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, Karl Barth – are very critical of the secularizing tendencies both of their Church and of the Church of Pope Francis.
“The malady,” Ricca said in a recent head-to-head debate in “Riforma,” “is that we are all focused on social issues, something that is sacrosanct, but in the social we exhaust Christian discourse, and outside of there we are mute.”
And Tourn: “The policy of pope Bergoglio is to do charity. But it is clear that the witness of fraternal love alone does not automatically lead to knowing Christ. There is today not a silence of God, but our silence about God”:
But Francis is moving forward undeterred, and a few days ago even appointed a Protestant theologian who is a friend of his, Marcelo Figueroa, as director of the new Argentine edition of “L’Osservatore Romano”:
This commentary was published in “L’Espresso” no. 30 of 2016 on newsstands as of July 22, on the opinion page entitled “Settimo cielo” entrusted to Sandro Magister.
Here is the index of all the previous commentaries:
Below are links to two recent commentaries that are particularly acute in identifying the essential characteristics of Lutheran Protestantism and their effects in history.
The first by Ermanno Pavesi, secretary general of the international federation of Catholic physicians:
The second by Professor Rocco Pezzimenti, director of the department of economic, political, and modern language studies at the Libera Università di Maria Santissima Assunta in Rome:
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.