Pope vs. Pope: What Does the Catholic Church Really Think about Martin Luther?

Editors’ note: Come celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation with us at our 2017 National Conference, April 3 to 5 in Indianapolis. The conference theme is “No Other Gospel: Reformation 500 and Beyond.” Space is filling up fast, so register now. Prices increase after Reformation Day (October 31).


On June 15, 1520, Pope Leo X issued the papal bull Exurge Domine (“Arise, O Lord”), censuring 41 of Luther’s 95 theses and threatening him with excommunication. In the bull, Leo called Luther’s teaching a “deadly poison.” Leo said he could not “tolerate or overlook any longer the pernicious poison of the above errors without disgrace to the Christian religion and injury to orthodox faith.”

Nearly five centuries later, a reporter recently asked today’s pope whether he would annul this damning verdict of Luther during the upcoming anniversary commemorations. After all, Francis is scheduled to take part in festivities today with Lutherans in Lund, Sweden. Pope Francis’s response:

I think that the intentions of Martin Luther were not mistaken. He was a reformer. Perhaps some methods were not correct. But in that time, if we read the story of the pastor, a German Lutheran who then converted when he saw reality—he became Catholic—in that time, the Church was not exactly a model to imitate. There was corruption in the Church, there was worldliness, attachment to money, to power . . . and this he protested. . . . And today Lutherans and Catholics, Protestants, all of us agree on the doctrine of justification. On this point, which is very important, he did not err. He made a medicine for the Church.

Instead of vilifying Luther as the perpetrator of a pernicious poison, Francis affirms him as a truly Catholic pastor who confronted ecclesial corruption. And Francis says he did this by administering medicine for the church—ultimately, the doctrine of justification by faith alone. What Leo X damned as poison, Francis has praised as medicine.

So what exactly was Luther’s medicine, and do we still need it?

Luther’s Medicine

From Luther’s perspective, the disease of clerical corruption required God’s appointed remedy: a serious engagement with Scripture. “If anyone keeps my Word,” Jesus said, “he will never see death” (John 8:51). Therefore, Luther concluded, God’s Word is “strong medicine . . . when held in faith, for it turns death into eternal life. Oh, if someone could believe this, how blessed would he be in this life as well.”

Surrounded by spiritual infirmity and a religious system that obscured and obstructed the gospel, Luther upheld Scripture as the way to true freedom. Faith in its salvation message, Luther says, means “being free and confident and certain of everlasting blessedness here, and also having a glad conscience in the life to come.”

Another reformer, Peter Martyr Vermigli, used a similar medical motif to portray the life-saving power of justification—that which “makes the incision and then applies bandages.” He explains why the gift of God’s acceptance comes to sinners only by faith:

We hold that justification exists by faith alone. This saying is proved by all those places of Scripture which teach that we are justified freely, as well as those that affirm that justification comes without works and also those that draw an antithesis between grace and works. I say that all these places truly prove that we are justified by faith only, even if the word “only” is not read in the Scriptures; but that is not of much weight, since its signification is derived from them by necessity.

This is the distinctive medicine of Luther’s Reformation: Scripture as our supreme authority in Christ, and faith as the only means by which one appropriates God’s acceptance.

Luther was not the lone Catholic leader who prescribed this remedy. Numerous prelates of the 16th century—including Cardinals Gasparo Contarini, Reginald Pole, and Girolamo Seripando—shared Luther’s conviction that Scripture grounds justification in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

But the Council of Trent’s Decree on Justification shut the door when it declared this doctrine anathema.

About-Face on Justification?

Does Pope Francis’s statement indicate a full theological about-face in the Catholic Church, or is there something more subtle taking place? The contemporary conversation between Catholics and Lutherans has centered on the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JD). Signed in Augsburg on October 31, 1999, it has led some to claim there is now doctrinal agreement. This declaration, between the World Federation of Lutherans and the Catholic Church, builds upon the common Augustinian heritage of Western Christianity, finding consensus in shared trinitarian and Christological convictions. The statement rescinds the mutual anathemas of the 16th century for those who accept justification as “presented in this Declaration.”

Despite the declaration’s claim of consensus, however, it acknowledges ongoing differences between Lutherans and Catholics on seven key issues connected to justification—thus it’s called a “joint declaration,” not a common confession of faith. Yet it describes them not as bona fide doctrinal differences but as discrepancies “of language, theological elaboration, and emphasis,” calling them “acceptable” (rather than targets of anathematizing canons).

The late Avery Cardinal Dulles regarded the term “acceptable” as poorly chosen and preferred “tolerable.” For non-Lutheran Protestants, however, who do not embrace baptismal regeneration (the impartation of Christian life through the sacrament of baptism), yawning gaps remain, and shared understanding is comparatively modest.

Luther’s medicine that heals troubled consciences before God—the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, appropriated by faith—is sadly absent from JDAnthony Lane concludes that agreement between Catholics and Protestants on justification remains more elusive than Francis’s sunny statement implies. “When the difference in terminology is taken into account and when allowance is made for complementary formulations,” he argues, “the gap turns out to be considerably narrower than is often popularly supposed, but a gap there remains.”

Essence of Unity

What will Pope Francis say about Luther’s gospel this morning when he visits Lund, Sweden? We will learn soon enough. Some fear it will become a historiographical coup d'état in which the Protestant Reformation is pronounced over without an honest consideration of evangelical doctrine.

Perhaps we should pray in the meantime that the pontiff would recognize the essence of Christian unity, not in his Petrine office but by the medicine of the German Reformer.

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