Yesterday, we told you that the Vatican Philatelic and Numismatic Office plans to issue a stamp bearing the image of Martin Luther. Now, in a reflection given to commemorate the fifth centenary of the Protestant Reformation — and published in the official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano — Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, has made some rather astonishing observations that seem to complement this bizarre decision perfectly.
As with the L’Osservatore Romano‘s recent publication of the Maltese Bishops’ (arguably heretical) guidelines on Amoris Laetitia, the stature of the publication itself matters. Recall this description of the paper’s purpose from Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone: “Created to defend the Catholic Religion and the Roman Pontiff, the daily newspaper became the official organ of the Apostolic See, which made it an instrument, along with its value, for the diffusion of the teachings of the Successor of Peter and for information about Church events.”
The text of Koch’s remarks is not yet available in English, but one of our translators, Andrew Guernsey, has provided us with some salient excerpts. When Koch speaks of Lund, he is referring, of course, to the papal visit there last October [emphasis added]:
…the event of Lund was not only received with gratitude, but also met with criticism and opposition….While, on the Catholic side, a Protestant tendency of Catholicism is feared, on the Protestant side there has been talk of a betrayal of the Reformation…
These expressions, which were confessionally partisan and polemical, which on the part of Catholics, exacerbated the rejection of Luther and of his reform are no longer possible in an ecumenical age. In an ecumenical age, it exists as a fairly general rule, the joint participation in the life of others in joy and suffering…
In the ecumenical movement, moreover, the idea came to develop that the Reformation does not apply only to the Protestants, but also to the Catholics, and that, consequently, the commemoration of the Reformation can happen today only in ecumenical communion. This is presented to both parties as a welcome invitation to dialogue about what Catholics can learn from the Reformation and on what Protestants can draw from the catholic Church as enrichment for their own faith.
…the commemoration of the Reformation in 2017 can only be made in ecumenical communion. In this broader context, it becomes clear that Martin Luther really did care. He absolutely did not want the break with the Catholic Church and the founding of a new church, but had in mind the renewal of all Christianity in the spirit of the Gospel. Luther was pressing for a substantial reform of the Church and not a Reformation that would lead to the disintegration of the unity of the Church. The fact that, at the time, his idea of reform was not able to be realized is largely due to political factors. While, originally, the reform movement was a movement of renewal within the Church, the birth of a Protestant Church is above all the result of political decisions…
…Since the renewal of the whole Church was the true purpose of Luther’s reform, the division of the Church, the birth of a Protestant church and the separation of Protestant ecclesial communities from the Catholic Church should not be considered as a successful outcome of the Reformation, but as expression of his temporary failure or at least as an emergency fallback. In fact, the real and proper success of the reform will only be realized with the overcoming of the divisions among Christians that have been inherited from the past and with the restoration of the Church one and united, renewed in the spirit of the Gospel.
In this regard, the Second Vatican Council, which bound together, in an irrevocable manner, the ecumenical commitment to restoring Christian unity and the renewal of the Catholic Church, has made an essential contribution, such that we can state, even in this respect, that in the Second Vatican Council, Martin Luther would have “found his own council.” The council would have appealed to him in the time in which he lived.
…it will already be a great achievement if the commemoration will take further steps towards a binding ecclesial communion. The latter must remain the goal of all ecumenical effort and, therefore, it is precisely to this end also that the commemoration of the Reformation must be aimed.
…Melanchthon has thus proven to be a great “ecumenist of his time”, able to show the way to us today as we celebrate together the commemoration of the Reformation. This will only be an ecumenical opportunity if 2017 will not mark the end but a new beginning on the path of ecumenism aimed at achievement of full ecclesial communion between Lutherans and Catholics…
There are some things to unpack here.
I have no idea what an “ecumenical age” is, or if there’s any cure for one. What I do know is that the Great Commission is valid for all Catholics of all times, no exceptions.
Neither do I know what “ecumenical communion” signifies for prelates like Koch. We already know that the rejection of the concept of an “ecumenism of return” — the idea that all ecumenical activity should be geared toward conversion of non-Catholic Christians to the True Faith — is ascendant in the 21st century Vatican. We hear a lot about this idea of “journeying together” in ecumenical circles, as though we’re all just following parallel paths to heaven, regardless of our significant theological differences.
Koch also says that the split Luther caused was a failure on his part; it’s pretty tepid stuff, but actually a more severe criticism than I would have expected. He then says, “In fact, the real and proper success of the reform will only be realized with the overcoming of the divisions among Christians that have been inherited from the past and with the restoration of the Church one and united, renewed in the spirit of the Gospel.”
That sounds to me vaguely like “ecumenism of return” language. I can’t be sure, because the concept of a unified Church — which should be self-evident — is not actually defined here as “the Catholic Church”. If he’s hinting at that, it’s good news, but odd, considering the ecumenical climate in Rome.
Then he unloads the read head-turner, though, saying that “the Second Vatican Council, which bound together, in an irrevocable manner, the ecumenical commitment to restoring Christian unity and the renewal of the Catholic Church, has made an essential contribution, such that we can state, even in this respect, that in the Second Vatican Council, Martin Luther would have ‘found his own council.’ The council would have appealed to him in the time in which he lived.”
I remember a story a friend told me, way back in my early days of exploring traditional Catholicism. He said that he was driving along somewhere in rural Virginia, and he got a flat tire. Realizing he didn’t have a spare, he walked up to the door of the closest building — a Lutheran church — and asked if he could use their phone. (This was before the ubiquity of cell phones.) He said they were very friendly, and while he was there, they, like the dutiful Christians they were, invited him to their Sunday service. They handed him a program, which had the text of their liturgy printed inside.
“It was the Novus Ordo.” He told me, an astonished look on his face. “Pretty much word for word with a couple of small changes.”
It always struck me, even then, before I was more fully awake to the crisis, that the Catholic liturgy should, if it’s done right, be a stumbling block to Protestants. We have fundamentally different sacramental theology. As time went on, I came to better understand the larger ecumenical agenda behind not just the changing — in a Protestantizing fashion — of the liturgy, but also the larger Protestant influence on the Second Vatican Council itself.
And while my friend’s story was anecdotal in nature, not theological, it only stands to reason that if the post-conciliar Catholic liturgy was amenable to Lutherans, the council that set the stage for that liturgy’s creation might very well be acceptable to Luther himself. Cardinal Koch certainly seems to think so, and why shouldn’t we take his word for it? He’s the man charged with understanding the differences and commonalities between our two faiths, and is closely aligned with those most in tune with the so-called “Spirit of Vatican II”.
One wonders, therefore, what Koch is driving at when he speaks of taking “further steps toward a binding ecclesial communion.” Is this unity something he envisions under the “de-fanged” version of post-conciliar Catholicism, offensive (and inspiring) to precisely nobody? Or is it something even less — a federation of churches loosely affiliated with the pope?
Unfortunately, we can only speculate at this point. Whatever it is, it’s going to be something less (or perhaps more, depending upon how you look at it) than it should be, and that’s a problem. We need the restoration of an authentic Catholicism — liturgically, theologically, doctrinally, catechetically — before we can do much good through evangelization. I’ve often wondered if many of the Catholic converts from Protestantism since the Second Vatican Council would have converted to the pre-conciliar Church — and if not, why not? Did they convert to fullness of truth, or only to the heavily redacted — and frankly, dumbed down — version of this religious powerhouse that was the driving force of Western Civilization?
As I’ve told you before, I suspect one of the next big agenda items will be intercommunion. If I’m right, this feels (despite certain positive noises about “unity”) as though it’s actually just one more step toward justifying the unthinkable.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children.