Pope Francis' participation in Reformation anniversary focuses on friendship and trust, not only theology, says Cardinal Kasper

Pope Francis’ visit to Sweden to participate in the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation on Oct. 31 is “very important” for ecumenism, and could pave the way for a new document on church, Eucharist and ministry, according to Cardinal Walter Kasper.

The German cardinal understands the significance of this better than most because he served as co-chairperson of the international Catholic-Lutheran Commission that in 1999 reached agreement on the question of justification that was at the heart of the dispute that led to the Protestant Reformation.

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In this interview with America on the eve of Francis’ visit, the cardinal, who was President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity from 2001-2010, not only looks back on the progress made in the Catholic-Lutheran dialogue over the past 50 years, but also forward to new horizons for that dialogue. Moreover, he emphasizes that “doctrinal questions are not the only important thing for ecumenism, it is also important that you make ecumenism through friendship, through trust” and said, “this is the charism of Francis.”

What’s the significance of Pope Francis going to Lund, Sweden, to participate in the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation?

Well the Lutheran World Federation (L.W.F.) was the first one with whom we started the dialogue after the Second Vatican Council. The dialogue with the Lutherans, in my view, is the most advanced dialogue that we have. The first major consequence of that was the agreement on the question of justification, and now I think the time is mature to have a similar paper about church, Eucharist, and ministry. The dialogue on these three points is very far advanced, though there is not yet full consensus. A commission from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that is responsible for interreligious and ecumenical affairs has prepared all the materials about these three themes and about the achievements so far and I think that now we should make a common statement about these. If we do so, it could open the door, at least, for Holy Communion in singular, concrete situations. 

Could you explain the question of justification that once created so many problems, but is now resolved?

The problem of justification was at the center of the whole dispute in the 16th century. Luther believed that there was only justification by faith, not by good-works, justification only by grace and not by our merits. Of course, we now agree that good-works are fruits of faith but we cannot merit grace, it’s given only by the love of God. At the time of the Reformation there was a sharp division about this point. The occasion was indulgences. Then a friar called Johann Tetzel, O.P., preached indulgences, and one got indulgences by giving money. There was a whole market of indulgences at that time and this was an abuse. Luther argued against indulgences in his 95 theses; he said one cannot merit grace, it is a gift of God by faith, and this created a discussion about the power of the pope to give indulgences. So, the question of papacy was immediately implied in this discussion; the pope was seen as the anti-Christ, teaching doctrines not founded in scripture, whereas Luther insisted on “scripture alone.”

The question of indulgences, however, was only the starting point of a big dispute. There were also many political problems involved, and so the Reformation then became a reformation made by the princes who had not only their holy interests, but also their worldly interests – practical, economic, political. And then there were many abuses in the church in the late Middle Ages and people were very angry against Rome because of the indulgences. Money is the most sensitive point of the human being! So there was a lot of anger against Rome, the Curia, and there was a whole wave of emotions.

You have written a book on Luther, which I understand you also gave to Pope Francis. How do you see Luther?

In the beginning Luther had good intentions. He did not want to create a new church, he wanted to reform the whole church, he wanted the renewal of the universal church, starting from the bible. Today, we call this the New Evangelization, but then there was all this wave of emotions. Rome’s resistance led to his 95 theses that were no longer in agreement with Catholic teaching, regarding the sacraments, the ministry and so on. He was condemned as an obstinate heretic and outlawed at the Diet of Worms presided over by Emperor Charles V in 1521. Consequently, he was not any longer protected by the law of the Empire, anyone could kill him. Later, around 1530, he began to establish his own communities, and at some point turned back to positions, more on institutional questions, that were not those of the Catholic church.

Luther is a complex personality, there was a complex evolution in him, and in the dialogue with the Lutherans, and especially with the L.W.F., we tried to discuss all these problems and so we are no longer in the position of the sixteenth century. The world has changed, the church has changed, the Lutherans have changed. We have tried to come to an ecumenical interpretation of all this in the dialogue, and now are very close together.

Most importantly, in the dialogue we reached agreement on the central question of justification, expressed in the joint Catholic-Lutheran Declaration in 1999. In Germany, this was followed up by an agreement about baptism, and the mutual recognition of baptism.

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You were co-chair of the Catholic-Lutheran International Commission that reached the all-important agreement on the question of justification. Could you explain that agreement and how it happened?

It came about because there were some very good studies on this question in the United States and in Germany, historical studies, and the new change in the research about Luther. Then a good friendship developed among us in the commission, and I think this was important. We walked with each other and shared how we live our respective faiths. All that created an atmosphere of trust in which one can find solutions.

Then we agreed that, first of all, every human being requires justification, one cannot justify oneself. The great heresy of modern times is that we can do it by ourselves. It’s clear, also from psychology, that we all need justification, we are all sinners. Secondly, the fact is that only God can justify and pardon sins, we cannot do it by ourselves; we cannot do it by good works, by asceticism, by mysticism and so on, it is all God’s grace, and it makes us a new creation. We are justified by God alone, and by faith in God’s work in Jesus Christ on the cross and in the resurrection, and not by our own merits. We are justified by the grace of God or—as Pope Francis says—by the mercy of God. But God’s grace must become fruitful in works of charity and in our life. It’s not a cheap faith where we have nothing to do; good works are a fruit of grace, we cannot do them by our own forces. Those are the main points. There are some smaller points regarding different aspects of the fundamental agreement that still need to be clarified, but do not contradict the fundamental agreement.

In October of 1999, John Paul II approved this agreement on one of the central points of the Reformation, and as consequence of that in Germany we also reached agreement on the mutual recognition of baptism.

We have reached this fundamental agreement but we are not yet fully united because there are still problems relating to church, ministry, Eucharist, and papacy.

The Lutherans do not yet accept the papacy.

Well there has been a lot of discussion and dialogue about the papacy. They no longer consider the pope as the anti-Christ. Lutheran bishops come to Rome and like to have a photo with the pope. So, things have changed, but there is still much resistance against the universal jurisdiction of the pope.

To address this question of the papacy, John Paul II, in the encyclical “Ut Unum Sint,” invited all the ecumenical partners to reflect together with him about a new way of exercising the papal ministry. Benedict XVI repeated it. Francis repeats it, but goes further and calls for “a conversion of papacy.” He wants to give more freedom, not autonomy but more responsibility, to bishops and to the local church. From both sides, there is a rapprochement.

In this context, I think the meeting in Lund is very important, because doctrinal questions are not the only important thing for ecumenism. It is also important that you make ecumenism through friendship, through trust, and this is the charism of Francis, to make friendship, to establish personal relations, trustful relations, and I think this can help a lot. Moreover, he does not think in terms of positions, but in the terms of development, of process. For him, ecumenism is to walk together, step by step, and walking together to address the challenges of our days which also brings us closer to each other.

I consider Lund an important step in this common walk to unity. Lund cannot close theological questions, but it can pave the way for a new document about ministry, the Eucharist and church, or at least help us go further. It gives important support for our dialogue, because it builds trust, and without trust we cannot solve any problems. Friendship and trust are fundamental, so this will be a new push for the dialogue and it will make this new closeness transparent to the public. This is a public witness because everyone now sees the pope goes to the Lutherans, and they see the Lutherans with the pope, and this changes the mentalities in the church. 

But I have to add something. The Lund meeting is a relationship with the L.W.F., but in Germany we have a different situation because they are more skeptical, because the Evangelical Church of Germany is not only Lutherans it also includes the Reformed and United churches, there’s a mixture and therefore we have a different situation, more skeptical, more critical, more resistant, so I don’t know if this meeting can help to overcome some of their reservations. One can only overcome these reservations and distrust through the culture of encounter.

I know that in Buenos Aires Francis had very good relations with the Lutherans, and he wants to move forward.  He’s not a specialist of the theological dialogue; rather he emphasizes friendship and walking together. For him ecumenism like synodality means walking together. He believes in the process. Time has precedence over space.

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Apart from the questions regarding papacy, ministry, Eucharist, church, Lutherans also have a problem about Mariology.

Yes! For most Lutherans, our veneration of Mary and of the saints, our praying to them for intercession is something very strange, but it is a part of Catholic religiosity. Luther himself venerated Mary a lot, but he did not accept the intercession of Mary and the saints. I think the problem was that at that time there were exacerbations of Marian piety. But the same is true today in some southern European countries, and maybe in parts of South America, and all this is quite different to our northern cultural mentality; we are more cold, less emotional. It’s a difference of cultures, not of faith. For us Catholics this Marian piety is normal, but for Protestants the papacy and Mariology are emotionally loaded problems.

Is Francis helping to dilute or reduce such reservations among Lutherans and Protestants?

The way Francis is exercising the papacy is helping a lot to overcome these prejudices. He’s not a tyrant, as Luther called the pope. All his humanity is a big gift also for ecumenism. It’s clear that with our theological reflections we cannot reach normal people; for them life is life and today Protestants and Catholics work together, live together and in Germany there are lots of mixed marriages. But this is also new, it was not the case before the Second World War where there were Protestant and Catholic religions and, for example, it was difficult for me as a Catholic to meet a Protestant girl!

It's important to remember that the move towards unity is not only a theological process, it is a process of life, of “walking together” as Francis says. He has underlined this aspect of ecumenism and also “working together,” such as we have seen in the common response to the crisis of the refugees that we have in Germany. This crisis was a real gift for ecumenism because an enormous number of Catholic and Protestant volunteers worked together in favor of the refugees and stood against those right-wing people that were against them. These are practical things, but they are very important; they bring people much closer together than our theological discussions. Francis understands this well.

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Some in Germany have reservations about the pope’s meeting with the Lutherans at Lund also because of the problems about the papacy and Mariology.

Reservations, yes, but also surprise and joy. You must remember that Germany is the country of the Reformation; it is deeply linked to its history, to its national identity; it is felt more strongly here than anywhere else in the world. We are still living with the consequences of this. Indeed, up to the Second World War we had Catholic regions and Protestant regions in Germany, and it is only after the war that the regions became much more mixed. These non-theological elements are very important in the whole discussion on ecumenism.

The L.W.F. is celebrating its own 50th anniversary, and it was already a surprise that they invited the pope for this anniversary. It was a common invitation from the L.W.F. and the Council for Christian Unity. They have published a common booklet “From Crisis to Communion,” looking back at the road they have travelled together over the past 50 years.

Moreover, I think the majority in countries like Germany, where Catholics, Lutherans and Protestants work together, inter-marry and do many other things together, welcome this meeting and are very happy about this step forward in ecumenical relations. But there are ultra-orthodox Catholics who are upset because they feel the pope may give up something of Catholic doctrine and tradition, and there are ultra-orthodox Lutherans who fear something similar in terms of the Lutheran tradition. There is this fear.

Remember however, that for Catholics in the past Luther was the arch-heretic, and for the Lutherans the pope was the anti-Christ, but since John XXIII all this changed. Even before then there was already a change among Catholic historians like Joseph Lortz, and Hubert Jedin, the expert on the council of Trent; they reached the conclusion that Luther had good intentions at the beginning. Today Catholic and Protestant historians have more or less the same understanding of the Reformation. Benedict XVI recognized this when visited Erfurt in 2011, and praised Luther as a man who was passionate about God.

I once asked Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini S.J., what he considered the greatest obstacle to Christian unity and he responded, “the spirit of possessiveness, everyone wants to keep what he has.”

Yes, indeed! The churches are like big steamers on the sea, they are awkward, it is difficult for them to move and change direction. To give up something, to give up a certain mentality, is most difficult. But it’s an attitude, it’s a human problem, not a dogmatic one. Pope Francis rightly speaks of “conversion”; it needs conversion of the papacy, conversion of bishops, conversion of Lutherans and of Catholics, and conversion is not the easiest thing. But at the end of the day, the full unity of the church is the gift of the Spirit, and we must pray for this gift of conversion.

We must pray for the grace of unity, and pray to open one’s heart to the other, open one’s opinions, to give up prejudices and this is not so easy as we all have prejudices. Spiritual ecumenism, praying together, is at the very heart of ecumenism. Praying together changes the heart, and so I think this celebrating together the Liturgy of the Word in Lund is most important.

Is it easier for Catholics today to unite with the Lutherans or with the Orthodox?

That’s a good question. As it stands from the dogmatic aspect, we are much closer to the Orthodox than to the Protestants because we recognize each other’s sacraments, including priesthood and episcopacy. The only point of disagreement with the Orthodox is the papacy, they would agree with a primacy of honor but not of jurisdiction. But there are people within the Orthodox church, like the monks on Mount Athos, who do not agree that our sacraments are valid. But there are also difficulties within the Orthodox churches as we saw around the pan-Orthodox synod where some do not dare to recognize us as a church, but this is fundamentalism. Whereas for Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew it is clear, and it is also clear for Patriarch Kirill who told me we recognize all your sacraments. From the dogmatic aspect we are closer to the Orthodox, but the Protestants are coming out of this same Latin and Western culture, so it’s not only dogmatic it is also a cultural gap with the Orthodox, which have a different history and culture—the Byzantine, and so from this respect it is easier with the Protestants. We are closer in the way we do theology, using the same approaches in biblical exegesis, in the historical-critical methods and so on. In this cultural respect, Catholics and Protestants are much more similar, whereas the Orthodox tradition and way of thinking culturally is different.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Vincent Gaglione
11 months 3 weeks ago
This is an interview the value of which can only be understood in a spirit of humility. Today's visit by Pope Francis to Lund reminds us of the necessity to be humble before God, before each other in our own faith, and before all others in other faith traditions. I whisper now a prayer for the success of Francis so that all peoples may be one through our redemption by Christ.

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