Today's post is by guest contributor, Christian Clement-Schlimm. Because it's the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and because of Christian's background in history, I've asked him to share what Luther might think of the Roman Catholic Church, as it exists today.
Although I grew up with Roman Catholic friends and family, it wasn’t until I began university that I started to have serious theological conversations with Roman Catholics of conviction. These would include Roman Catholic seminarians, converts from Evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism, and people who frankly knew their stuff. We would discuss the nature of the sacraments and the positions of the early church, but it would always come back to the issues of the Reformation. One hard conversation I had took place with a Roman Catholic friend who was considering which Roman Catholic monastic order to join. At the same time he was struggling with critical points raised by Protestantism. The conversation ended when he basically asked, “Why can’t Roman Catholics and Protestants just get along? We’re all serving Christ after all.” I think many people struggle at this point. They know that there are differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism but they’re not sure how significant those differences are. What my friend didn’t seem to realize was that our differences were at the heart of our faith. We need to get along, but that doesn’t mean pretending that we’re the same or that our differences don’t matter. Let me explain.
Since Martin Luther and the Reformation, the Roman Church has undergone many changes. These changes would begin in earnest at the end of Luther's life, in the middle 16th century, as those who remained in the Roman Church sought to respond strongly to their sudden loss of power, numbers and credibility.
The Counter Reformation, as the name suggests, was a significant reaction against Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. A large part of it, however, was also an internal reformation of various medieval practices that had developed within the Roman Church. For example, the Council of Trent (the primary meeting of Roman Catholic leaders in response to the Reformation, taking place from 1545-1563) addressed the sale of indulgences, the practice that kick-started Luther’s calls for reform. While indulgences would continue and are still a part of Roman Catholic religion today, the Council of Trent did crack down upon their sale and the abusive, profiteering schemes that surrounded the practice. Trent also addressed the issue of a corrupt clergy. Priests would now be better educated and held to a higher standard of knowledge, the appointment of bishops (regional religious leaders) would be based upon merit, and clergy would have to focus on serving the people under their care.
Theologically, however, the Counter Reformation would oppose many of doctrinal efforts of the Reformers; it most notably reacted to Sola Fide, justification through faith in Christ alone. The Roman Catholics denied this and cemented the position of the Roman Church that human works are a necessity in man being justified before God. Going further, several of the Canons (points) of Trent “anathematized” (declare cursed by God) any person who holds Sola Fide and the Gospel of grace. As Canon 9 of Trent states “If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.” Despite ongoing discussion among Roman Catholics on the topic, the anathemas are still in effect today. While Trent uses strong words Luther himself did not mince words either: in fact, he was known for his strong language. Thus, for Luther and the Reformers, who knew the gospel as proclaimed in the Apostle Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians, this would be a clear indication that the Roman Church, as an institution, had ceased to be a Christian one.
In addition, the Marian Dogmas (a set of beliefs surrounding Mary), would perhaps become one of the most visible and popular theological divides to develop between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Over the centuries leading up to the Reformation, one of the many corruptions to enter the Church was the idolatrous exaltation of Christ’s mother, Mary. For example, by the time of Reformation, the Perpetual Virginity of Mary (the belief that Mary remained a virgin for her entire life) was a widely held belief among Christians. Even many of the Reformers would hold this belief, including Martin Luther himself. Yet, as Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone being the infallible rule of faith) began to spread and take hold among the Protestants, these various beliefs regarding Mary would soon be shed. In Roman Catholicism with their lack of Sola Scriptura, however, Marian doctrines would ever increase in number and become more blasphemous. For example, in the 1850s and 1950s respectively, the Roman Catholic Popes would authoritatively decree that that the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary were dogma (beliefs that must be held by Roman Catholics). Immaculate Conception, meaning that Mary, like Christ, was born without sin and Assumption meaning that Mary, like Christ, was taken into heaven without experiencing death. These two Marian dogmas are not alone as many Roman Catholics regard Mary as “the Queen of Heaven”, “Mediatrix of all Graces” (mediator of God’s grace to believers) and “Co-Redemptrix” (Co-Redeemer of believers alongside Christ). Not only are these titles and doctrine regarding Mary not found in Scripture, they are in direct opposition to the centrality and honour that the Scriptures give to the Triune God alone.
On the whole, as visible bodies, the Christian Church and the Roman Catholic Church are growing further apart. This is the inevitable result of the two bodies answering to different authorities and proclaiming different gospels. It is, however, still important to discern and distinguish. As one might expect there is great diversity within the Roman Church, such as nominal/cultural Roman Catholics, traditional Roman Catholics, charismatic Roman Catholics, and many more. Like everyone else they need to hear the Gospel, repent and believe in it to be saved. As Protestants throughout history have recognized, and we might see today, there are also many Christians in the Roman Catholic Church who are unaware of it's official positions. For many, the Roman Catholic Church is just another Christian denomination with its unique quirks.
So what might Luther and the Reformers say if they were alive today and looking out upon the Roman Church? I believe he would say something to this effect: As Evangelicals who are deeply concerned with the proclamation of the gospel and filled with love for our Roman Catholic friends and family we should proclaim the gospel to all. For those unbelieving Roman Catholics that they might repent and believe, and for believers in the Roman Catholic Church that they might “go out from their midst, and be separate from them” (2 Corinthians 6:17) and join us in the visible body of Christ. Doing this all the while trusting that as many as are appointed to eternal life will believe (Acts 13:48).