The Reformation: 500 Years Later
Hallowe’en this year will be the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. On that day in 1517, according to what may be a legend, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Castle Church door. Europe and Christendom would never be the same.
In the last century, especially, we have made significant gains in overcoming divisive prejudices, stereotypes, and, most importantly, violence toward one another. Catholics and Protestants alike have largely come to see one another as fellow Christians. Still, there is a lot of work to do. On one end of the spectrum, there is still fear and suspicion. (The words “heretical” and “papist” still get thrown around like weapons in some quarters.) On the other end, there is a temptation to indifferentism, as if there were no significant differences between Catholics and Protestants and “it’s all good.” Neither extreme is helpful in promoting Christian unity.
Over the past year, I have used this anniversary as an opportunity to reflect on unity writ large. I have explored Christian unity, but also racial unity, unity with Jews and Muslims, and unity with immigrants, refugees, the sick, and those devastated by natural disasters. I have written about the unity of the human family, and the need to acknowledge each other as brothers and sisters across all differences, lest we pray “Our Father” with hypocrisy and scandal. Today, I would like to bring us back, once more, to the document on Ecumenism from Vatican II, Unitatis Redintegratio.
“[I]t is from newness of attitude of mind, from self-denial and unstinted love, that desires of unity take their rise and develop in a mature way,” the bishops observed. A bit further on, they wrote, “The faithful should remember that they promote union among Christians better, that indeed they live it better, when they try to live holier lives according to the Gospel. For the closer their union with the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, the more deeply and easily will they be able to grow in mutual love” (UR #7).
These elements of ecumenism are precisely what we find in today’s readings. In Exodus, we hear God say to the Israelites: “You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt. You shall not wrong any widow or orphan… If you lend money to one of your poor neighbors among my people, you shall not act like an extortioner toward him by demanding interest from him. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset.” Living this way is—i.e., with the poor and marginalized, the vulnerable and suffering at the heart of our concerns—indeed requires and demonstrates “self-denial and unstinted love.” Our closer “union with the Father, the Word, and the Spirit” is coupled with this “unstinted love” in fulfilling the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Christian unity, in other words, is forged in the spiritual fire of Christian life together, jointly living the Great Commandment of love.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together against the prideful attempt to create a “wish-dream” community instead of accepting humbly the community God gives us, with all its various tensions and wrinkles. Life together under the Great Commandment is the only road to Christian unity, a communion like the Trinity, in which oneness does not destroy difference. In a wish-dream community, difference is overcome by flattening it out. Although this type of unity appeals to some people, it is a false communion. It employs force to compel uniformity and compliance. It is a human project, and unknown to God. Summarizing Pope Francis on the issue, Crux wrote the headline, “Don’t confuse Christian unity with uniformity, Pope urges.”
How, then, shall we proceed? Most fundamentally, this is our charge: “Cooperation among Christians… should be developed more and more… It should contribute to a just appreciation of the dignity of the human person, to the promotion of the blessings of peace, the application of Gospel principles to social life, and the advancement of the arts and sciences in a truly Christian spirit. It should use every possible means to relieve the afflictions of our times, such as famine and natural disasters, illiteracy and poverty, lack of housing, and the unequal distribution of wealth. Through such cooperation, all believers in Christ are able to learn easily how they can understand each other better and esteem each other more, and how the road to the unity of Christians may be made smooth” (UR # 12).