Sunday, October 31, is Reformation Day. It marks 493 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to that famous door in Wittenberg, Germany. The Augustinian monk set in motion a sequence of events that reverberated through Western Christendom and continues to mark and separate us today.
Since returning to the Catholic Church in late April 2007, Reformation Day has taken on a different meaning than it did when I stood on the other side of the Tiber. Nevertheless, even as a Protestant, my enthusiasm for October 31 never rose higher than modest appreciation for what I thought were Luther’s, and later Calvin’s, significant contributions in helping Western Christians to retrieve what had been lost. I say “modest appreciation,” since it always seemed to me rather unseemly to get too excited about schism and mutual charges of apostasy and heresy. It would be like celebrating the 10th anniversary of your divorce. You may think that the divorce was a good idea, but not because you think divorce itself is the proper end of a marriage.
Luther himself, though excommunicated by the Catholic Church, never saw his movement as anything more than a renewal movement within the Church. We, of course, know now that the movement he started had a life of its own, resulting in scores of different and often conflicting understandings of Scripture, sacrament, and Church, and each finding something of Christianity’s traditions to challenge.
But in order to arrive at this present state of theological diversity and ecclesial fragmentation, you needed more Luthers, of which there has been an endless supply. His success made Luther a towering example to emulate. Combine that with an ever diminishing memory of a unified Western Christianity, along with the spirit of the Enlightenment—that detachment from familial, ecclesial, and cultural traditions is the beginning of reason—and schism then becomes a sort of secular sacrament. Although Luther argued that justification is by “faith alone,” it is clear that he did not anticipate or support the modern idea that Church is by “the faithful alone.”
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