Luther and Catholicism: Possibilities and Problems

by Dr. Michael Root


I have been given a very far reaching topic, “Luther and Catholicism: Possibilities and Problems”  I am to take up the issues involved in Luther and contemporary relations between the Catholic Church and Lutheran and more generally Protestant churches.  Obviously, I can only cover such a topic with broad strokes.  I will address four themes, the first two of which are essentially ground-clearing comments and the last two of which are more substantive.


  1. Ecumenism and Luther

I think it is important to eliminate a potential problem, one that was not always avoided in recent commemorations of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting his 95 Theses on Indulgences on October 31, 1517.  It is a mistake to assume that present Catholic relations with Lutherans or Protestants turn on the relation of Catholic theology to Luther’s theology.  Ecumenical relations are not about the relations between theologians or between theologies, but about the relations between concrete church bodies, i.e., concrete organizations of persons.    Granted, these communities are decisively shaped by their understandings of what God has done in Christ and is doing in the Church, i.e., by their theologies, but the decisive ecumenical question is not whether we can construct a rapprochement between Catholicism and Luther’s theology, but whether Catholic and Lutheran or other Protestant churches can live out the sort of common life that in involved in being one church.[1]


In addition, neither Catholic theology nor Lutheran or Protestant theology stand today just where they stood during Luther’s life.  Three major church councils have come since Luther’s death—Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II—which have clarified Catholic teaching in ways, ways that sometime open up new possibilities for understanding with Protestants, but also in ways that sometime make the depth of differences more manifest.  Lutheranism implicitly but clearly rejected Luther’s harsh doctrine of election as found in his The Bondage of the Will.[2]


  1. Luther and the Reformation

Similarly, it is important not to conflate Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Luther truly was the dominant theological force in the Reformation during his lifetime, but the Reformation was not simply about theology and we should not assume that if we can settle the theological problems of the Reformation, we will have defused its church-dividing consequences.  The Reformation was a far-reaching cultural, political, and economic event, not just a discussion about doctrine.[3]  For example, one way to read the Reformation is as a moment in the long history of conflict between clerical and lay elites over the control of religion in Western Europe.  The Reformation, especially Luther’s Reformation, can be seen as the triumph of lay control over the church through the new state-controlled church structures that emerged where the Lutheran Reformation was accepted.  This new situation had long-lasting consequences.  I would argue that the forms of Protestantism that came to be established in Europe in the 16th century undercut the ability of the church in those countries to be genuinely countercultural.  This result I would argue shows up in the inability of such churches to avoid shifts in cultural attitudes, a deep problem as North Atlantic societies increasingly de-Christianize.


  1. Changing Catholic and Lutheran Interpretations of Each Other

With those preliminary warnings in place, we can turn to Luther and Catholicism  Historically, possibilities and problems have been shaped by how each understood the other.  On each side, possible encounter has often been limited by a picture of the other painted during the sixteenth century.


By about 1520, Luther had reached the conclusion that the papacy was the Antichrist.[4]  This conclusion was one aspect of Luther’s larger reading of his time as the advent of the Last Days, to be dominated by the conflict of the remnant of true Christians with demonic forces that had entered the Church.[5]  It is hard to overestimate the importance of this reading of history on Luther’s relation to the Catholic authorities and the theologians who spoke for them.  Seeking understanding with Catholics was pointless.  Scripture does not speak of ecumenical discussions with the Antichrist.  After all, “what accord has Christ with Belial” (2 Cor 6:15), a text Luther cites in his anxious letters to his colleague Philip Melanchthon while Melanchthon was negotiating with Catholic leaders at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530.[6]  Luther saw himself engaged in a cataclysmic struggle between good and evil, not in the difficult process by which the Church seeks communal clarity about its message and practices. Whatever may or may not have been the conceptual possibilities of rapprochement between Luther and Catholicism, this apocalyptic attitude formed an insuperable obstacle to any attempt at such a reconciliation during Luther’s lifetime.  The papacy as Antichrist became a standard Protestant outlook in the following centuries.


Catholic understandings of Luther were shaped for an extended period by the biography of Luther written in 1549 by one of Luther’s Catholic opponents, Johannes Cochlaeus.[7]  For Cochlaeus, Luther was not simply a heretic; he was an immoral man, a drunkard who lusted after nuns.  Cochlaeus’ influence on Catholic readings of Luther stretched into the 20th century.   One  find echoes of Cochlaeus’ description in Pius X’s 1910 encomium of Charles Borromeo.  Pius contrasts Borromeo, Catholic archbishop of Milan during the Reformation period, with the Protestant reformers, who “were not concerned with correcting morals, but only with denying dogmas. Thus they increased the chaos. They dropped the reins of law, and unbridled licentiousness ran wild. They despised the authoritative guidance of the church and pandered to the whims of the dissolute princes and people.”[8]  (For those acquainted with contemporary Lutheran churches, the idea that “unbridled licentiousness” runs wild is somewhat comic.)


In the nineteenth century, serious scholarly work by Catholics on Luther and his theology began to appear from such important writers as Johann Adam Möhler[9] and Ignaz von Döllinger.[10]  At the beginning of the twentieth century, two influential Catholic studies of Luther appeared, from Heinrich Denifle[11] and Harmann Grisar.[12]  Denifle, an historian of medieval theology.  judged Luther by the standards of scholasticism and found him incompetent, Luther was a Halbwisser, a ‘half-knower,’ someone who only partially understood the faith.  Grisar judged Luther by psychological standards and found him neurotically morbid.  Luther’s scruples and his flight toward a God who accepts but does not transform the sinner were rooted in his unbalanced pessimism.  (This reading of Luther can, in part, rely on Luther’s own late account of his early struggles in the Augustinian order.[13]  Recent interpretations of Luther have called into question Luther’s somewhat self-serving account of his early struggles and their role in his development.[14])


A far more nuanced Catholic assessment of Luther came in the mid-twentieth century with the development in Germany of a Catholic school of Luther study and Luther interpretation.  The leading figure was Joseph Lortz and his major work The Reformation in Germany.[15]  Lortz’ reading of Luther was negative, but more sympathetic.  Lortz took up and further developed an historical narrative of decline in the late middle ages.  The great thirteenth century figures of Aquinas and Bonaventure were, he argued, followed by an increasingly obscure fascination with logic in Duns Scotus and his followers and a descent into the thinly disguised Pelagianism of  William of Ockham, Gabriel Biel, and others.  As someone trained in the theology of such late medieval figures, Luther couldn’t authentically reject true Catholicism, because he had never been taught it.  What he rejected was a degenerate form of late-medieval Christianity, which he replaced with something closer to the evangelical truth, even if still defective, partly due to the nominalist vestiges he never purged from his thought.


Like the picture of Luther crushed by scruples until he was forced to escape by denying a legitimate demand for holiness, Lortz’s reading of Luther as corrupted and limited by his nominalist schooling has had staying power.  The narrative can be developed, however, in ways that excuse Luther or ways that blame him.  On the one hand, Luther can be assessed somewhat positively as rejecting the alleged weakening of the concept of grace in much late-medieval theology.  Aquinas and Luther can be partially reconciled in their mutual repudiation of nominalism, joining hands as they spit on the grave of Ockham. On the other hand, the narrative can be told with Luther as a moment in the general decline.  He is another step along the path downward that leads from Scotus through the nominalists, the Reformers, Descartes, Kant, and ending in secular modernity. These latter, more sweeping declension narratives seem to have a growing popularity among Catholic historians of thought.[16]


A pressing contemporary question for a Catholic assessment of Luther is how we fit him into the development of modernity and how we assess that development.   Is the development of modernity the decisive context for assessing Luther?  Protestants may see the modernity-Luther connection positively.  The Evangelical Church in Germany released a “foundation text” for its commemoration of Luther which focused on Luther as a crucial moment in evolution of modern conceptions of freedom.[17]  Interestingly, in the last two years, negative readings of Luther by Catholics who see him as an important moment in the decline of Western Christianity and culture toward individualism and other evils have appeared or been re-published.[18]



  1. Luther and the Theology of Grace

Larger cultural movements were not Luther’s primary concern, however.  What he cared about above all, almost to the exclusion of all else, was what he understood to be the gospel of God’s grace.  Any Catholic encounter with Luther must finally focus on this decisive topic.


The first task is simply to understand what Luther meant by justification by grace, through faith, because of Jesus Christ.  All three phrases are important—faith, grace, and Jesus Christ.  If any one of the three fall out or if their interrelation is falsely grasped, the result is something other than Luther’s understanding of the gospel.  Understanding just what Luther meant by justification is not an easy task; his own followers have argued over the correct interpretation for centuries.  Luther’s tendency toward exaggeration and paradox presents a constant obstacle to a balanced reading.  Any interpretation can (and, in most cases, already has) been questioned.


I would say that the beating heart of Luther’s understanding of the gospel is his insistence that the only righteousness that will avail before the judgment seat of God is the righteousness of Christ, a righteousness made freely available to us in Word and Sacrament.  That righteousness is received simply by trusting in it, but such trust is radical; it involves abandoning our inveterate assertion of our own works as somehow worthy to stand before God and relying on Christ alone.  That trust, which is faith, breaks the power of sin, for sin is precisely our turning in upon ourselves.  Through that trust, we are taken into communion with God; our soul becomes Christ’s bride, sharing in his riches as he takes on our sin.[19]


I believe a Catholic understanding of Luther is aided if one sees Luther’s theology as rooted in a spirituality that can claim close similarities to authentic Catholic strands of piety.  Luther wants to shift the eye of the self away from any concern with itself and toward God’s work of mercy in Christ.  Self-forgetfulness and humility are crucial.  Here he stands not far from someone like St. Thérèse of Lisieux.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church ends its presentation on merit with a quotation from St. Thérèse’s “Act of Oblation to Merciful Love,” written just before her death:


After earth’s exile, I hope to go and enjoy you [God] in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. I want to work for your love alone…. In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself.[20]


When Luther’s understanding of justification is placed in the broad context of his total religious perspective, possibilities of Catholic understanding are opened.  Even during the Reformation, when Lutheran and Catholic theological representatives made a sincere effort at rapprochement in Augsburg in 1530 and Regensburg in 1541, justification as a specific doctrinal topic was not the decisive sticking point.  In the second half of the 20th century, ecumenical dialogues between Catholics and Lutherans at the international level and in the United States and Germany reached agreement on justification.[21]  The Catholic Church and the churches of the Lutheran World Federation affirmed this agreement in 1999 in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.  The Declaration summarizes this agreement:


In faith we together hold the conviction that justification is the work of the triune God. The Father sent his Son into the world to save sinners. The foundation and presupposition of justification is the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. Justification thus means that Christ himself is our righteousness, in which we share through the Holy Spirit in accord with the will of the Father. Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.[22] 


The Joint Declaration, as important as it is, does not mean that Catholic and Lutheran churches are on the verge of full reconciliation.  As I noted above, issues other than justification in the strict sense were always involved in the Catholic-Protestant divide and new differences have arisen.  Even if one simply expands the question of grace and its works beyond justification, significant differences arise over the way grace does or does not elevate the self and the Church to participation in God.  Nevertheless, the Joint Declaration does place ecumenical discussions of Luther’s theology in a new and more hopeful context.


Martin Luther will probably always be a controversial and elusive figure in the history of Christianity and theology, an inspiration to some, the source of error for others, and a puzzle to many.  At best, he was a deeply ambiguous man, brilliant but erratic, a mixture of pride and humility, warmth and bitterness.  For the Catholic tradition, he cannot cease to be problematic, but the possibilities of understanding him and even learning from him remain.




[1]For an argument laying out such a pragmatic ecumenical criterion, see Michael Root, “Identity and Difference: The Ecumenical Problem,” in Theology and Dialogue: Essays in Conversation with George Lindbeck, ed. Bruce Marshall (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 165–90

[2]See Article XI of the Formula of Concord.

[3]A very readable general account of the Reformation, attentive to the broader realities at work within it, is Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation (New York: Viking, 2003).

[4]Luther’s path to this conclusion is traced in Scott H. Hendrix, Luther and the Papacy: Stages in a Reformation Conflict (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981).

[5]This side of Luther’s outlook is particularly stressed in Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

[6]See discussion and references in Michael Root, “The Augsburg Confession as Ecumenical Proposal: Episcopacy, Luther, and Wilhelm Maurer,” Dialog 28 (1989): 223–32.

[7]An English translation of Cochlaeus’ biography can be found in Elizabeth Vandiver, Ralph Keen, and Thomas D. Frazel, eds. and trans., Luther’s Lives: Two Contemporary Accounts of Martin Luther (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002)

[8]Pius X, Editae saepe: Encyclical of Pope Pius X on St. Charles Borromeo (1910), para. 9, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_x/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-x_enc_26051910_editae-saepe_en.html.

[9]Johann Adam Möhler, Symbolism: Exposition of the Doctrinal Differences Between Catholics and Protestants as Evidenced by Their Symbolical Writings, trans. James Burton Robertson (New York: Crossroad, 1997).

[10]Ignaz von Döllinger, Die Reformation: Ihre innere Entwicklung and ihre Wirkungen im Umfange des lutherischen Bekenntnisses (Regensburg: G. Joseph Manz, 1846–48).

[11]Heinrich Denifle, Luther and Lutherdom, from Original Sources, trans. Raymund Volz (Somerset: Torch Press, 1917).

[12]Hartmann Grisar, Luther, trans. E. M. Lamond (St. Louis: Herder, 1913–17).

[13]Martin Luther, “Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Writings,” in Luther’s Works, Vol. 34, ed. Lewis W. Spitz (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), 327–38.

[14]See, e.g., David S. Yeago, “The Catholic Luther,” in The Catholicity of the Reformation, ed. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 13–34.  A good recent and readable account of Luther’s life can be found in Volker Leppin, Martin Luther: A Late Medieval Life, trans. Rhys Bezzant and Karen Roe (Grand Rapid, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2017)

[15]Joseph Lortz, The Reformation in Germany, ed. Ronald Walls (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1968).  See also Lortz’ much briefer and more accessible How the Reformation Came, trans. Otto Knab (New York: Herder and Herder, 1964).


[16]The best known of these presentations is Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012), but see also Thomas. Pfau, Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press), where, however, the Reformation plays a smaller role.

[17]Rechtfertigung und Freiheit: 500 Jahre Reformation 2017.  Ein Grundlagentext des Rates der Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland (EKD) (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2014).

[18]In addition to the books by Gregory and Pfau noted above see also Richard Rex, The Making of Martin Luther (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017) and Paul Hacker, Faith in Luther: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion (Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Academic, 2017).

[19]This understanding of justification is continuous, I believe, in Luther’s writings from about 1518 until the end of his life.  It is perhaps most appealingly set forth in The Freedom of a Christian (in Luther’s Works, vol. 31, 327-377. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957) and most clearly set forth theologically in Against Latomus (in Luther’s Works, Vol. 32, 133–260. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1958).



[20]Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed (Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000), para. 2011.  For the full original, see Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, 3rd. ed., trans. John Clarke (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1996), 276–77.  A certain parallel between Luther and Thérèse was suggested by Hans Urs von Balthasar, Two Sisters in the Spirit: Thérèse of Lisieux & Elizabeth of the Trinity (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 95–96 and is expanded upon in Edward T. Oakes, A Theology of Grace in Six Controversies, Interventions (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016), 88–91.


[21]See Joint Lutheran-Roman Catholic Study Commission, “The Gospel and the Church (The Malta Report),” in Growth in Agreement: Reports and Agreed Statements of Ecumenical Conversations on a World Level, ed. Harding Meye and Lukas Vischer (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 168–89; H. George Anderson, T. Austin Murphy, and Joseph Burgess, eds., Justification by Faith: Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue 7,  (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1985), and Karl Lehmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg, eds., The Condemnations of the Reformation Era: Do They Still Divide? trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989).

[22]The Lutheran World Federation and The Roman Catholic Church, Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), para. 15.

1 thought on “Luther and Catholicism: Possibilities and Problems”

  1. Great post—Luther and his theology of grace is a topic I rarely get tired of reading about. Perhaps you’re already well familiar with it, but Daniel Olivier’s book “Luther’s Faith” is a solidly researched analysis of Luther, from a Catholic perspective. It’s a balanced and positive treatment of Luther that I think is exceedingly rare from our [Catholic] side, that doesn’t fall into the trap of polemics.


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