1517-2017: Parting, othering, reconciling

Anthony Towey

In the January of every New Year, the Church in these islands celebrates Christian Unity Week. This will have especial poignancy over the coming months since 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of Luther’s ‘protest’ in Wittenberg, Germany. For Catholics, it may seem odd to contemplate a ‘celebration’ of this event. The repercussions led to the deaths of countless thousands in civil and Europe-wide warfare while the lesions of division and bigotry still mark a number of our communities even today.

Despite the historically safe distance of half a millennium, one can still feel the passion in Luther’s Ninety five theses. Among the most famous is: They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory, (Theses 27). Yet despite the polemic, many of them are constructively irenic and supportive of petrine primacy. It would be difficult to find a Catholic today who would disagree that ‘Papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love. Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend that the buying of indulgences should in any way be compared with works of mercy. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences. Because love grows by works of love, man thereby becomes better’ (Theses 41-44).

With works of love to the fore then, it may be possible to enter this year encouraged that Christianity has changed, the world has changed and we have changed. Christians in Europe no longer regard each other with the same mutual suspicions of a previous generation. And it is an interesting thought experiment to wonder what, if anything, Luther would sympathize with in the broad Catholic discourse represented by this edition of the Pastoral Review?

Vatican II is sometimes seen as a lived example of a rapprochement between Catholicism and the Reformed tradition. Since distortions of papal privilege were among Luther’s most pressing concerns, it is difficult not to wonder what he might think of the current pontiff, and how he would read the articles by O’Collins and Gallagher on the way Pope Francis is developing the ecclesial and pastoral vision of Vatican II. While surprised, he might be even more fascinated by the feminine accents discernible in the articles of Bridie Stringer, Anne Inman and Roderick Strange which consider the ministry of deaconesses and the enduring witness of four Theresas, the first of whom was born in his lifetime.

Luther would surely be impressed with the biblical focus of this journal with weekday and Sunday reflections by Nicholas King and Robert Draper respectively, as well as Bernard Robinson’s Old Testament Chronicle. Likewise, proclaiming the Good News in a parochial context (Daniel Ang) and Stephanie McGillveray’s reflections on the ars moriendi would have been close to his concerns as a pastor. But it is perhaps the testimony of two seminal figures of recent times that might attract his keenest gaze. Ashley Beck profiles a guiding influence for many clergy and laity during the twentieth century, Ronald Knox. Mgr. Knox was a convert and grew up in an era of notable apologists such as G.K. Chesterton. It is perhaps inevitable that he would contrast the differing world view held by Catholics and Protestants:

To the Catholic mind the supernatural world ... impregnates the world of sense. Faith to the Protestant, is primarily a disposition of the affections, a conscious confidence in a Personality. To the Catholic ... grace is the air which the supernatural world breathes, faith is the light in which it is seen.’

I am not entirely sure that Luther would have seen it this way, but in any case this accentuation of difference is something foreign to Jean Vanier, who precisely founded the L’Arche communities as non-homogenous places of encounter. In a special interview arranged by Martina Vuk, he points out:

The whole of humanity is built up through experience ... until recently, Catholics were not supposed to speak to Protestants – theoretically. But then we met and discovered that many Protestants are holy people. Pope Francis said: ‘Go to the periphery and meet the people and when you meet them you discover something, you receive something of their wisdom.’

Nearing ninety, both personally and through some 150 L’Arche communities in 37 countries, Vanier is a living witness of changed attitudes in a changed church in a world which by God’s grace he has helped to change.

Withal, it cannot be denied that in sociological terms, the Reformation triggered a phase of almost unprecedented ‘othering’ – communities, regions and nations were rent asunder by new markers of identity, new distinctions that became instantly decisive. The pain of this othering has been bloody and the vehemence of this disunity a scandal to non-believers and a disfigurement of the Body of Christ. Yet ‘othering’ is not restricted to religion, it is evident in political and racial polarisation and indeed many cultural observers surmise is on the increase.

Perhaps it is in demonstrating a hunger for unity that the Christian Churches can offer a resounding counter to othering. And with true Gospel paradox, it could be that in recalling the events of 1517, Christians may find a way to celebrate their parting as a temporary estrangement, in a family reborn in the shared waters of baptism, and the sweet caritas of divine belonging.