It was about five hundred years ago that the Roman Catholic church excommunicated Martin Luther for the teachings that led to the Protestant Reformation. Chief among these teachings was the idea that justification is by faith alone (sola fide).
That is why it is baffling to read Pope Francis’s recent remarks about Luther. In a recent interview, a reporter asked the Pope if he might consider lifting Martin Luther’s excommunication. While the Pope did not offer to remove his excommunication, he did have some rather remarkable words. There is one particular paragraph worth highlighting:
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. Then he was intelligent and took some steps forward justifying, and because he did this. 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…
This is a rather curious statement. Francis argues that Lutherans, Catholics, and Protestants all “agree on the doctrine of justification.” These words seem to suggest that the main soteriological difference between Protestants and Catholics is no longer an issue.
I have no idea what the Pope is talking about here. It is possible that The Joint Declaration on Justification is the background for this statement. But that statement only represented rapproachment with a particular group of liberal Lutherans. It did not establish unity with all Lutherans, much less Protestants in general. Protestants have not laid aside sola fide, and the Roman Catholic church has not laid aside its anathema of sola fide. Yes, the issues are complex, but the divisions among the faithful are obvious and ongoing.
If anyone wants to offer an explanation for the Pope’s statement, I welcome it. At first blush, it looks like he’s saying that the Reformation was no big deal after all and that the Roman Catholic church now accepts many of Luther’s insights. But I don’t think that is what is going on here. So what is going on here?