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Luther's Legacy and Christian Unity

How Both the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation Got It Wrong

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By Dr. Robert Stackpole
History books resound with Martin Luther's famous words uttered 500 years ago in his closing statement to the Diet of Worms (an ecclesiastical and imperial council called to examine his teachings). He said:

Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. [And some witnesses say he added these words at the end:] Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.

Thus, the Reformation was born. And the historical results were rapid and predictable.

What Martin Luther was saying in 1521, in effect, was, "The highest authority for me in discerning what God has revealed through Holy Scripture is my own reason, my own private judgment. I cannot fully trust anything else: not a papal decree, nor an ecumenical council. I cannot even defer to any traditional interpretation of Scripture by the saints and Fathers. So, unless someone can show me, to my own satisfaction, that I am wrong, by presenting me with biblical reasons that I find convincing, I cannot and will not admit that I am wrong."

Since every Protestant reader of Holy Scripture was now his own highest authority for interpreting it, the Reformation movement itself gradually shattered into a plethora of competing denominations, each one clutching its own interpretation of God's Word. Right now there are an estimated 154 distinct streams of Protestantism, and roughly 20,000 Protestant denominations in the world. In short, Luther's declaration was the death knell for global Christian unity.

The Pope's prerogatives
In response, the Roman Catholic Church, from the time of the Reformation until Vatican II, increasingly reinforced Church unity by emphasizing centralized papal authority. This became known as the "Ultramontane" doctrine. The Catholic Church was now held to be essentially a pyramid of obedience in everything, with the Pope at the top.

Consider all the ways in which the Pope has been recognized as the Church's highest authority.

For example, the papacy alone ultimately has the authority to decide which books should be included in Holy Scripture and which devout Christians should be considered Fathers and saints of the Church. The Holy See alone ultimately decides which general councils of the Church were truly authoritative ecumenical councils. He ultimately ratifies — and by his own authority can alter — the creeds of the Church that were written by those ecumenical councils (e.g. when the Holy See added the contentious words "and the Son" to the final paragraph of the Nicene Creed, an act that contributed to the tragic schism between Orthodox East and Catholic West).

The papacy can write its own creed for the universal Church as well, which all Catholic Christians are duty-bound to accept and believe (e.g. when Pope Pius IV penned the Tridentine Creed at the time of the Reformation, and when Pope Paul VI wrote "The Credo of the People of God" in 1968 after Vatican II). It is the Holy Father who ultimately appoints the bishops of the Church, and he can remove them at will.

The Pope on his own also can authoritatively and infallibly define that a particular doctrine has been revealed by God and is necessary to be believed by all the faithful (as when the papacy defined ex cathedra the truth of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary) — and such papal declarations are held to be true and irreformable of themselves and do not need to be received and ratified by the college of bishops for us to know them to be true.

Indeed, according to the First Vatican Council in 1870, the papacy has "the absolute fullness, of ... supreme power ... ordinary and immediate both over all and each of the churches, and over all and each of the pastors and faithful."

What's wrong with this picture?
Today, 500 years after the Reformation, all too often all sides in the controversies straining the unity of the Church simply assume the papal monarchy paradigm without question.

Some Catholics today express concern that Pope Francis is now using his papal authority to impose on the Church doctrines and social teachings that they see as incompatible with the traditional Catholic faith. Others are frustrated that Pope Francis has not gone farther and utilized his supreme authority much more boldly to amend traditional Church teaching and practice. Both sides hang on his every word, waiting to see what he will say and do next.

Many on both sides of this debate accept that the papal monarchy ultimately can and should decide all of these issues for us. If only we can get the right kind of pope at the helm, to impose all the things that we approve of, and forbid all the things that we don't!

Something is clearly wrong here.

For one thing, not much evidence can be found in the New Testament for a vision of the Body of Christ with a monarchical earthly leader. Scripture clearly shows us that Peter was meant to be the rock, universal shepherd, and key-bearing Vicar of Christ (see Mt 16:17-19 and Jn 21:15-19), to serve and help secure the unity in truth of the universal Church. But there's not a single instance in the New Testament of Peter exercising authority over the other apostles or all the faithful like a supreme monarch. What we see is Petrine leadership, not Petrine lordship.

Similarly, in the early Church the continuing Petrine ministry in the See of Rome was widely held to be the visible "head" of the universal Body of Christ: a generally trustworthy touchstone of orthodoxy, and a court of appeal on matters of doctrine and discipline that divided the bishops from one another. But the ancient Fathers and saints came to no consensus among themselves on precisely how that Petrine ministry should operate, and how far its authority should extend.

For example, in 449 AD, Pope St. Leo the Great issued his famous Tome in order to settle an early Christian controversy regarding the doctrine of the Incarnation. But even though he thought that his action alone settled the matter, the bishops at the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451 felt it necessary to examine and discuss the document before receiving it as a true expression of the apostolic faith. In short, there was a consensus on Petrine primacy, but not on every aspect of its authority.

Let's define 'unity'
One of the fruits of ecumenical dialogue over the last half-century has been the rediscovery of the ancient Christian notion that the Body of Christ is not just a collection of autonomous individuals (who happen to agree with each other on their interpretation of Scripture), nor is it a centralized monarchy. Rather, the Catholic Church essentially is a "communion" (koinonia) of churches: Each Eucharistic community, as a living cell of the universal Body of Christ, participates in the life of the whole through shared sacramental bonds and a common faith.

The Petrine ministry is meant to play a key role in this universal koinonia. Unity with the Holy See is meant to be a sign and seal of the unity of the whole Body. But he alone does not define the faith for all (at least, not without most of the bishops behind him), nor does he simply impose his will on all his brother bishops (nor even necessarily appoint them all).

As in any living human body, the head cannot act on its own apart from the support and proper functioning of the rest of the body, nor can the whole body act without the agreement of its head. A healthy mind and body acts organically, with each member and organ performing its proper role.

Think of it this way: Jesus once said, "where two or three are gathered in My name, there is an argument." Oops — that's not quite what He said, but it's all too true.

It's a miracle of the Holy Spirit even when a small group of sincere and thoughtful Christians (all of us sinners-not-yet-fully-cured, with a limited finite capacity to comprehend the infinite mystery of God) come to a common mind on all significant matters of faith and morals — even more so when a whole parish or a whole diocese can be of one mind.
It's the most amazing miracle of all when the bishops of the whole Church, together with the Bishop of Rome, by the Holy Spirit freely come to a common heart and mind about doctrines of faith and morals that need to be clarified, defined, and secured, to keep the whole Body of Christ in the unity of the truth, for the sake of its mission.

The Russian Orthodox refer to such miracles of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church as Sobornost: true, consensual unity in truth and love in the Body of Christ. It's manifest above all in the consensus of the Church Fathers and the saints, the Creeds and councils, most especially from the first Christian millennium (when Orthodox East and Catholic West were still united).

This historic, consensual Catholicism is a vast treasury of wisdom that does not depend on what the Pope said yesterday, or whether you find his latest public remarks helpful or not.

This Sacred Tradition (of which the Petrine ministry is called to be the principal custodian) is a wellspring of wisdom flowing deep in the heart of the Church, and ensuring that she remains, ever and always, one Body in Christ (Eph 4:4-6), and "the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15).

Robert Stackpole, STD, is an author and the director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. He was an ordained Anglican pastor before becoming a Catholic in 1994.

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