Immediately after Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the Church door in Wittenberg, discussions of his theological statements began to take place at different locations. Luther himself, however, was unable to participate in many of these discussions because he had been placed under a ban and was unable to travel. Too bad. Reconciliation might have resulted from his participation in these dialogues. The wars and killings which followed might have been avoided. The reform movement could have continued within the Church without moving into community splitting and violent confrontations. Now, as we approach the 500th anniversary of the tragic fragmentation of the Church which was meant to be a loving world community, it seems an appropriate time to re-think the whole affair.
Church reform, in the 16th century, certainly was needed. The Roman economic and political structures which Constantine integrated with Christianity contributed to serious moral failures within the Church. There was no separation of Church and State throughout the Roman Empire and that aspect of Constantine's model for the Church did not change until the European Enlightenment in the 1700s and 1800s.
Once the Roman political system collapsed in the 5th Century, the papacy moved from unity with the state to becoming the state. Government is expensive and Popes needed more and more money to run both Church and state. This led to more papal taxation and more secular concerns. Burdened by this taxation, northern cities and principalities benefited economically from declaring independence from Rome. Once the fragmentation started, the world-wide Christian community fell apart. The splitting of Christianity however was due more to state interests and culture differences than it was to theological issues.
James F. Drane
If after 500 years, steps toward reconciliation are taken, Christians on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide will have to confront certain historical realities. Catholics have to recognize that some Popes (especially in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries), after becoming state rulers and adopting the culture of aristocracy, fell into scandalous and corrupt behavior. Protestants on the other hand have to recognize that with fragmentation of the Church came violent wars among different reformation groups. These wars took millions of innocent lives. What made Church unity even more unlikely as time passed was the union of Reform Churches with secular states, each with its economic and political interests in separation from Rome.
This Church-State bonding finally was rejected by the European and American Enlightenments. Protestant and Catholic theologians are now more free of state interests. Each can look again at what has happened to the world-wide Christian community and what they can do to bring the Churches closer. Several years ago, under the influence of a Catholic theologian named Joseph Razinger, Catholic and Lutheran theologians came together and arrived at full agreement about all the doctrinal differences which theologians in Luther's day were not even able to get together to discuss.
A 500-year anniversary offers a time to pause and reflect. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Knox wanted Church reform, not the deadly wars and continuing hostilities that have caused nothing but damage to Christianity. Besides the opening provided by a 500 year anniversary of division, both Catholic and Protestant Churches are experiencing a shocking decline in membership. One reason for this, is that separateness, continuing criticism, and an us vs them mentality in both Catholic and Protestant Churches, scandalizes and alienates believers on both sides.
Luther and Calvin and the Catholic hierarchs, if they were able to return today, would have to face the consequences of this scandalous fragmentation of Christianity. They could not help but repent for the innocent lives lost in the religious wars. And they would want to stop the hemorrhage of believers from mainline Churches in today's increasingly secular culture. Certainly they would support a new reformation aimed at bringing fragmented Churches closer together. The theologian, Joseph Razinger, who brought together Protestant and Catholic theologians and reconciled all doctrinal differences is now Pope Benedict XVI. Presumably, he would like to extend his earlier accomplishment. Protestant leaders would easily agree that Popes today are different from some Renaissance era Popes and are morally decent persons.
Not all religious figures and secular leaders in the 16th Century were driven by selfish motives. And so we can hope that the 500th anniversary of the Reformation will provide an occasion for some Protestant and Catholic leaders at least to move from separateness to closer relations, based on regret for past failures. Who knows? After 500 years, something could happen to heal a still broken Body of Christ, the Church. Both Protestants and Catholics would be comfortable belonging to the ecclesia simper reformanda: the Church always undergoing reformation.
James F. Drane is the Russell B. Roth Professor of Bioethics at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania