This forthcoming October 31 will mark 500 years since the splintering of Christianity represented by the Lutheran Reformation. On the same date, however, 17 years will have passed from what Monsignor Franco Buzzi, Prefect of the Ambrosian Library of Milan, and one of the founders of the Academy of Lutheran Studies in Italy (Asli), defines as “a milestone in the ecumenical dialogue.” On October 31, 1999, at Augusta, Germany, leaders of the Catholic Church and of the Lutheran World Federation signed a “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” Fruit of long labor carried out by a Mixed Theological Commission, this important document forms the background of ZENIT’s interview with Monsignor Buzzi a few days before Pope Francis’ visit to Sweden for the anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation.
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ZENIT: Monsignor Buzzi, does that document disentangle the controversy par excellence between Catholics and Lutherans?
Monsignor Buzzi: The value of that document is extremely important; it is a milestone in ecumenical dialogue. For the first time, after 500 years, Catholics and Lutherans were in agreement with Saint Paul in the third chapter of the Letter to the Romans: “Now, instead, independently of the law, God’s justice was manifested, witnessed by the law and by the prophets; justice of God through faith in Jesus Christ, for all those who believe.” Our redemption is not the fruit of our commitment, but pure grace of God; it is a gift of His mercy: it depends solely on the work carried out for us by Jesus Christ; it depends on His Death and Resurrection for us, to which we adhere with faith. The gift of faith, namely of adhering with joy and industriousness to God who speaks to us, is always accompanied with the proclamation of the Gospel. In fact, the Gospel “is the power of God for the salvation of every one who has faith (Romans 1:17) and “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
ZENIT: In light of the steps forward in the dialogue between the two Churches, is it still licit to accuse the Protestants of heresy?
Monsignor Buzzi: The same document of 1999 specifies that differences remain in the way of understanding the thesis of justification by faith. For instance, in Luther there is talk of the permanence of sin, which, although no longer computed as sin, still remains in one who is justified, while Catholics affirm that original sin is removed through Baptism and that what remains of concupiscence in the baptized <person>, namely the evil will to go against God’s law, of itself does not constitute sin, when this temptation, which remains, is not consented to by one who has this painful experience. As can be seen, it is about theological finesses, which can be well understood and admitted without falling into contradiction on the content of the main thesis. That is to say: the differences that remain in the two Confessions regarding justification by faith are not such as to compromise the unity of the same faith on this point. Therefore the differences do not allow the believers of the two different Confessions to accuse one another of heresy.
ZENIT: The monk of Wittenberg, who accused the Catholic Church of being secularized, found shore however in the worldly German Princes. The Lutheran Reformation had political implications: did it subject spiritual authority to temporal power?
Monsignor Buzzi: The worldliness of the Catholic Church of Luther’s time was well described by historians and certainly represented, also for Luther, one of the reasons for his energetic taking of a position. However, in his original intention, there wasn’t the desire to create another Church in respect of that of Jesus Christ. The incomprehension and total barrage experienced by the Reformer induced him progressively to take ever more peremptory positions that detached him from Rome. Inserted in all this also is the play of German Princes who saw in him the occasion to detach themselves from Rome, to subtract themselves from the economic burdens that Rome imposed on Germany cradling at the same time the idea of a national German Church. In any case, Luther did everything to guarantee room in the new organization of the Church in Germany for spiritual freedom generated by the rediscovery of the Gospel. Testimony of this is his doctrine of the dual kingdom, in which the powers and limits of the civil authority are specified in regard to the freedom that flows from the Gospel.
ZENIT: What geopolitical implications did the Lutheran Reformation arouse in the Europe of the ‘500?
Monsignor Buzzi: The Reformation caused, effectively, a great political upheaval in the order of Germany itself, but also in the whole of Europe for at least two centuries, the 16th and the 17th. Suffice it to think of the great number of principalities and small political territorial circumscriptions in which Germany was divided, also seconding the faith embraced by individual Princes, in keeping with the famous principle of tolerance which states “Cuius regio eius et religio”: the individual’s religion depended on his belonging to a particular territory. The peasants’ social revolt, which spread to many States of Europe, was crossed in fact with the so-called fight and wars of religion between Protestant and Catholic Princes, be it at the time of the Emperor Charles V, be it after him, at least until the end of the Thirty Years War, with the peace of Westphalia (1648).Obviously, in all this labor the difference of religious Confession was simply a pretext or screen to hide important political interests that referred to the aspirations of power and prestige of the reigning Princes.
ZENIT: Despite everything, distrust remains: Pope Francis’ choice to take part in this commemoration in Sweden has created perplexity among some Catholics …
Monsignor Buzzi: It’s not about celebrating the division but, on the contrary, of putting at the center of our common interest all that up to now unites us, in the communion of Christ. One can certainly understand the resistance on the part of some Catholics formed in the school of confessional opposition, fueled by the controversial and apologetic theology which dominated the scene of catechesis and of the institutes of theological culture for close to five consecutive centuries. The last fifty years, in which grosso modo the ecumenical work has intensified, they have not yet been able to awaken the interest and adherence of all to that prospect of passing from conflict to communion.
ZENIT: Considering that the variegated Protestant world does not have a unanimous magisterium, do current subjects exist on which Catholics and Lutherans can speak to the world with one voice?
Monsignor Buzzi: Yes, certainly, First of all we must be united in the desire to proclaim together to the whole world that only in Jesus’ name is salvation offered by God to all human beings (cf. Acts 4:12). There is no greater urgency than this. In the second place, be it for one as for others, true faith in Christ cannot but be manifested in works of love (cf. Galatians 5:6). It is on this terrain that initiatives of collaboration must grow to meet the effective needs of todays’ suffering humanity. In sum, we propose to celebrate a feast for Jesus Christ together, rendering credible to the world this common testimony with works of love.[Translation by ZENIT]