Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Benedict XVI on Martin Luther

If there were any lingering doubt that Pope Benedict XVI has a deeply Augustinian sensibility, that was laid to rest in his meeting last Friday at the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt with the leaders of the Lutheran Church in Germany and by the Pope's praise (!) for Martin Luther:

As the Bishop of Rome, it is deeply moving for me to be meeting you here in the ancient Augustinian convent in Erfurt. As we have just heard, this is where Luther studied theology. This is where he was ordained a priest. Against his father’s wishes, he did not continue the study of Law, but instead he studied theology and set off on the path towards priesthood in the Order of Saint Augustine. And on this path, he was not simply concerned with this or that. What constantly exercised him was the question of God, the deep passion and driving force of his whole life’s journey. “How do I receive the grace of God?”: this question struck him in the heart and lay at the foundation of all his theological searching and inner struggle. For Luther theology was no mere academic pursuit, but the struggle for oneself, which in turn was a struggle for and with God.

“How do I receive the grace of God?” The fact that this question was the driving force of his whole life never ceases to make a deep impression on me. For who is actually concerned about this today – even among Christians? What does the question of God mean in our lives? In our preaching? Most people today, even Christians, set out from the presupposition that God is not fundamentally interested in our sins and virtues. He knows that we are all mere flesh. And insofar as people believe in an afterlife and a divine judgement at all, nearly everyone presumes for all practical purposes that God is bound to be magnanimous and that ultimately he mercifully overlooks our small failings. The question no longer troubles us. But are they really so small, our failings? Is not the world laid waste through the corruption of the great, but also of the small, who think only of their own advantage? Is it not laid waste through the power of drugs, which thrives on the one hand on greed and avarice, and on the other hand on the craving for pleasure of those who become addicted? Is the world not threatened by the growing readiness to use violence, frequently masking itself with claims to religious motivation? Could hunger and poverty so devastate parts of the world if love for God and godly love of neighbour – of his creatures, of men and women – were more alive in us? I could go on. No, evil is no small matter. Were we truly to place God at the centre of our lives, it could not be so powerful. The question: what is God’s position towards me, where do I stand before God? – Luther’s burning question must once more, doubtless in a new form, become our question too, not an academic question, but a real one. In my view, this is the first summons we should attend to in our encounter with Martin Luther.

Indeed, "he was not simply concerned with this or that." While spending a few weeks in Berlin on a fellowship a couple years ago, I took a day trip to Wittenberg to see the famous castle church door upon which Luther is supposed to have nailed his 95 theses and the wonderful Luther Museum at the former Augustinian monastery. While looking at Luther's own handwritten notes in the margins of his Bible, I couldn't help but marvel--notwithstanding some reservations about Luther and Luther's legacy--at the intense fervor that made a German Augustinian monk one of the central figures in world history, a fervor the Pope captures so well and so generously in these remarks.


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Apparently the pope didn't go to the same Catholic schools I did. Now, he's significantly older than I am, but I can't believe St. James, Assumption, and La Salle instilled a more positive attitude toward Luther in the 1930s and 1940s than they did in the 1950s and 1960s.

Posted by: David Nickol | Sep 26, 2011 5:44:22 PM

David: For the benefit of us converts, could you explain what you mean about the attitude towards Luther that you were exposed to in Catholic schools? Those of us grew up in sort of vaguely Christian churches (Moralistic Therapeutic Deism) and attended public schools were totally ignorant of and quite mystified by what went on in Catholic schools.

Posted by: Amelia | Sep 28, 2011 9:23:25 AM