The 500th anniversary of the Reformation

  • Written by Father Thomas Ryan
  • Published in Commentary
Martin Luther, a German monk, is depicted in this painting at a church in Helsingor, Denmark. Photo: CNS/Crosiers Martin Luther, a German monk, is depicted in this painting at a church in Helsingor, Denmark. Photo: CNS/Crosiers

The year 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the publication of Martin Luther’s 95 theses in Wittenberg, Germany, which eventually gave rise to what has become known as the Protestant Reformation. In his new book “Martin Luther: An Ecumenical Perspective, Cardinal Walter Kasper notes that our ideas about Martin Luther have undergone transformations in a number of ways over the past 500 years.

For Catholics, Luther was historically the church father of Protestantism, the heretic to blame for the division of the Western church, but in the 20th century Catholic scholars made a notable shift in their research on Luther. They recognized his genuine religious concerns and came to a more balanced judgment with regard to his responsibility for dividing the church. Even recent popes have adopted this new perspective.

Luther’s concern was the Gospel of the glory of God’s grace. While he was a reform-minded person, it was not his intention to become the founder of a separate reform church. His goal was the renewal of the Catholic Church from the perspective of the Gospel.

Reform was needed

The 14th and 15th centuries, the period known as the Late Middle Ages, was a period marked by major crises which led to radical changes in all areas of society: Demographic collapse due to a series of famines and plagues. Popular revolts leading to civil wars within countries as well as international conflicts between countries such as France and England in the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). And religious upheavals with three church leaders simultaneously claiming to be the true pope (the Western Schism, 1378-1417).

Reform was needed. The church held great political power in addition to ecclesiastical power. The pope was also a king (of the Papal States). The bishops were also princes and secular rulers. It was a financial boon to become a bishop because it brought with it lots of land and money. And princes were allowed to elect the emperor. Church and state functioned in a symbiotic relationship.

So it’s not surprising that in the view of contemporary scholars, the Reformation period was marked by a complex series of interdependent religious, social and political movements. And Luther’s call for reform was not heard by pope or bishops. He was answered with polemic and condemnation.

His posting in 1517 of the 95 theses titled “Disputation on the Efficacy and Power of Indulgences” was intended as an invitation to an academic discussion. But it never happened. And today, notes Cardinal Kasper, “Rome bears its fill of complicity in the fact that a church-dividing Reformation developed out of the reform of the church.”

Joint declaration

Common historical studies now enable us to recognize Luther as a teacher of the Gospel. Many aspects of Catholic life now find better expression because the Second Vatican Council responded to many of Luther’s appeals for reforms.

For example: the priority of grace over works, the centrality of Scripture, an ecclesiology based on the church as the people of God, the priesthood of the faithful, a vernacular liturgy, Communion under both species, a renewed emphasis on preaching, an active participation of the laity in worship (hymnody), an understanding of ministry as service, the principle of religious freedom and the need of continual reform in the church.

As the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification co-signed in 1999 by officials of the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation indicates, there is now a consensus on a truth central to Christian faith: “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.”

The joint declaration was a decisive step forward in overcoming division within the church. The experience of speaking the truth of the Gospel together is helping us to see one another in a new light. The last 50 years of dialogue enable us to see history anew and to heal our common memory. We share the same DNA.

Unparalleled Opportunity

In the fall of 2016, the North American Academy of Ecumenists met at the Candler School of Theology in Georgia under the theme of “Commemorating the Reformation: Churches Looking Together Toward 2017 and Beyond.”

One of the speakers, Dr. Catherine Clifford, a Catholic theologian from St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, Ontario, noted that this anniversary is an unparalleled opportunity to enter into the process of healing and reconciliation. It’s an occasion that can have profound implications for our future together if we approach it in the right spirit.

“We need to make ‘new memories’ together,” she said. “This anniversary is an occasion to receive the fruits of our dialogue — fruits of the last 50 years together. To see our relationships with one another in a new light. To discern the presence and action of God’s Spirit in each other’s communities.”

Paulist Father Thomas Ryan directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, D.C. Contact him at