Ecumenism: go for it, but with caution
[adapted from The Last Secret]
Perhaps it could be described as "dramatic." It was certainly eye-opening. Potentially, it could be momentous. It could also be dangerous.
One speaks here of the announcement Monday (1/25/16) via Vatican Radio that Pope Francis will be traveling to Sweden for participation in a major commemoration (all the more major now) of the Protestant Reformation.
You read that right. And the good that could come from it -- in possibly patching up parts of the great schism between Protestants and Catholics -- is awesome. Already, since the rise of Francis, one can sense less antagonism among Evangelicals and Pentecostals (the charismatic side of Protestantism) to Catholicism, and Episcopalians have been trickling back (along with young people).
Remarkably, non-denominational Christian "mega-church" leaders like Rick Warren (who wrote The Purpose-Driven Life, an excellent, record bestseller some years back, and did the invocation at President Obama's first inauguration) and Joel Osteen (the TV self-help-type evangelist who is watched by an estimated twenty million monthly in more than a hundred nations, vastly more than any Catholic program) have been unabashed in their praise of the Holy Father -- something they would not have dared do a few short years ago.
Moreover, both of the Pope's immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, spoke in favor of ecumenism and visited synagogues and mosques. Ecumenism is excellent and something for which the Church should strive. Protestants are our brothers in Christ. They have much to offer. We carry a few books by them, especially in the realm of spiritual warfare, for the simple reason that they contain information that can be of benefit.
The danger comes if such moves toward ecumenism are seen as any sort of compromise with what Martin Luther stood for and did to Catholicism, for no other single person has wrought more damage, basically causing Christianity (aside from the Orthodox, who had split long before) to break in half (today about 1.2 billion Christians are Catholic and 900 million "protestants," in literally thousands of denominations when one considers the independent charismatic "churches" like Warren's (Saddleback Church) and Osteen's (Lakewood Church) that continue to splinter.
One must be cautious in reaching out (as the Vatican newspaper has been doing, at times perhaps a bit too earnestly) to those outside of the faith, making sure that such reaching out (especially to Hollywood and rock stars) does not turn into an embrace of any sort of darkness.
For if division is not normally a good fruit, there are also concerns with Luther.
Many forget that this historical figure was once a seminarian -- reaching ordination -- and there were elements in his life that hinted at imbalance and to be blunt, diabolic disorder. A sincere enough Christian, endowed with rhetorical skills and knowledge of Scripture, Luther was often prone to drastic and bizarre mood swings.
According to biographer Erik H. Erikson (a famous psychologist), three of Luther's contemporaries claimed that in his early or middle twenties, Luther had suddenly fallen to the floor in the choir during a reading of Mark 9:17, screaming for no apparent reason in a way that was foreign and frightening (the biblical passage has to do with a spirit that threw a boy into convulsions). Such torment followed Luther to the grave (he saw the devil on his deathbed), as did his conviction that the Church was somehow to blame for his anguish. It is perhaps not something we join in "commemorating."
Luther's "theses" declaring against Catholicism -- the document that led to the massive schism -- was posted on the castle church at Wittenberg, where Luther, brilliant but emotionally wrought, was known as a testy professor who rejected the authority of Rome, and who ultimately cursed those who followed it.
This is not to judge, nor to compare Protestantism, in any way, to the far deeper darkness behind some rock music. It is to lay out the facts as we proceed toward efforts to unite all Christians.
Though the Church at the time of Luther certainly had great shortcomings (selling indulgences and even permission for priests to wed), the date Luther's theses were set forth gives a bit of pause for those of a mystical bent: October 31, 1517.
Though once devoted to Mary, keeping a picture of her in his room and believing that she was "holiness personified," "the purest adorer of God," the highest woman and "noblest gem in Christianity after Christ" -- describing her in his own formal theses as a woman who should never be criticized, but instead deeply venerated, one he himself had called upon during moments of crisis, and acknowledged as the "Mother of God," Luther nonetheless began attacking many things associated with the Catholic Church, and others following his lead began a terrible assault upon celibacy, priestly graces, and the sacraments.
Soon, Protestants in many of the splintering denominations would begin what is now the widespread Protestant denunciation of the Blessed Mother (despite Luther's early beliefs). In fact, just about every major aspect of Catholic devotion -- from statues and saints to the Rosary -- come under withering non-Catholic Christian attack, creating a poisonous atmosphere and causing one to wonder if inserting such poison is their way of deterring congregants from entertaining ideas about rejoining the Mother Church.
A little poison goes a long way.
Meanwhile, disbelief in purgatory not only seems against logic, but also deprives countless souls of necessary prayers (let us keep them in mind when we pray for souls, including Luther's). Luther also re-edited the Bible (expressly against the admonition in Revelation 22).
Fortunately, there was a pre-emptive strike in the way, nearly a century before, in the way of the Blessed Mother's appearance at Guadalupe.
Many denominations that have been spawned in the wake of Luther exercise certain "gifts of the Spirit" that we are all admonished to practice -- particularly healing and casting out demons (a real shortcoming in our intellectualized Church). Perhaps this is why the Lord allows the division to remain. They do and write some very excellent things. They have much to offer. But one is hard-pressed to see the fruits of Luther, overall, as positive. The commemoration must be seen not as any affirmation of him but as simply an olive branch to brethren.
Plenty of room for improvement, in all of us.
It will be easy to remember to pray for the Pope during the commemoration, for it will take place this coming October 31 (better known as Halloween).
Reach out, yes; absolutely; relentlessly, with love; we need to be one fold, one flock, with one shepherd; but let us not concede anything we should not concede nor display the slightest indication of compromise with most elements of Luther's attack on a Church founded (literally) on the bones of Peter (who was martyred at the site of the current Vatican and whose bones have now "ossified": turned to stone).
Those who like to quote the Bible chapter and verse should remember Matthew 16:18, before criticizing Catholicism, and recall too that from the Cross itself, Jesus told John and implicitly all the rest of us through history (John 19:27) that Mary is our mother. The Catholic Church has been apologizing a lot lately, but it is not always to blame; in this case it would be nice if Luther were also able to apologize.
-- Michael H. Brown
[resources: adapted from The Last Secret]
[see also: Report claims Lutherans offered
Communion at St. Peter's Basilica and
The Pope of ecumenism]