This is Martin Luther’s centenary year – he nailed his notorious 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517 – and the Holy Father has enjoined us to see Luther in a positive light. Francis has been receiving Lutheran pilgrims from Finland and has himself visited Sweden as part of a Lutheran reconciliation.
The Pope underlines that Martin Luther was seeking to reform the Church, which surely needed a few reforms: the 95 Theses acted as a major point of debate over the corrupt selling of indulgences. Luther had a valid mission.
I’m all for making common cause with Lutherans, and for acting ecumenically with all Christians. And I am told by scholars that Luther’s translation of the Bible into vernacular German was a magnificent achievement. Even those of us who have only café German (“noch ein Kaffee, bitte”) can appreciate the majestic cadence of his version of the opening of John’s gospel: “Im Anfang war das Wort, und das Wort war bei Gott, und Gott war das Wort.”
I also like Luther’s famous defence of conscience: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” It is a worthy defence of the principle of conscientious objection.
But let’s not go into overdrive with this Luther love-in. The guy wasn’t perfect: the Economist magazine blames him for encouraging the German nation to be too obedient to civil authority. He also stands accused of fomenting anti-Semitism and encouraging the destruction of synagogues. Luther blamed his last illness on Jewish people “staring” at him, which is not only bigoted and irrational – but bonkers.
And in an age which exalts “gender equality”, he was no champion of women. He closed down the convents, believing that nuns developed far too much power if they weren’t under the control of a male authority. He believed that every woman should be married, so as to be subjected to a husband. He said that if a woman faced death in childbirth, well, then, let her put up with it. Better maternal care was some time in the future, and not perhaps theologically addressed until Pius XII did so in the 1950s. So, yes, recognise Luther’s historical role in reform. But the portrait should be warts and all.
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