Pope vows to heal 500 years of division
It split Europe in two. It launched wars and strife. But as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation approaches, Pope Francis wants to end the rift between Catholics and Protestants. Can he?
Just over 499 years ago, on All Hallows’ Eve in the small, muddy town of Wittenberg in Northern Germany, a university lecturer was walking towards his local church. Martin Luther had been thinking a lot about Catholicism, the dominant religion of the time, and had written a document posing 95 questions and thoughts on the subject.
He nailed his ideas to the church door. The thud of his hammer reverberated across Europe, and changed it forever.
Printing presses helped his 95 Theses to spread rapidly, like a tweet going viral. ‘Within four weeks almost all of Christendom was familiar with them,’ said a friend later.
Luther had been enraged by the common but corrupt practice of priests selling ‘indulgences’ to release a person from penance or dead relatives from purgatory. This ‘pious defrauding of the faithful’ was unacceptable, he argued. Faith alone could get someone into heaven — not money.
He did not know it then, but he had sparked the Reformation. Within four years he was excommunicated, but this only helped to spread Lutheranism faster.
By 1534 Henry VIII had broken with Rome and begun destroying England’s monasteries. A century after that fateful day in Wittenberg, a Protestant revolt sparked the Thirty Years War — a series of bloody battles across Europe which cost Germany 40% of its population.
But hand-in-hand with the horrors of the Reformation came an outpouring of creativity. One man had held Europe’s most powerful institution to account and forced it to confront its corrupt practices. Luther’s ideas inspired a freedom and individualism which eventually paved the way for democracy. And translating the Bible out of Latin helped thousands of people learn to read.
Now, the end of the disagreements might be in sight. Pope Francis has announced a year of greater cooperation and dialogue between the two camps. And yesterday he marked Luther’s anniversary in Protestant Sweden by asking God for ‘forgiveness for divisions perpetuated by Christians from the two traditions’.
It’s about time, say some. There are too many problems in the world to worry about centuries-old arguments over obscure religious doctrine. Now Christians are finally learning the importance of communication, compromise, and forgiveness. They are moving forward rather than back — and if they pull it off, it will be a lesson for all of us.
Not so, say others. Why shouldn’t Catholics and Protestants believe two separate things? Rigorous debate and respectful disagreement is one of the most important creative tools that we have. It is how we learn about new perspectives, and how to question and defend our own ideas. In the end, it makes both sides of an argument better.
- Should the Catholic and Protestant churches put an end to their disagreements?
- Which is more important: argument or forgiveness?
- Printing presses were as revolutionary then as Twitter and Facebook are now. Imagine that the Reformation is happening in 2016, and write an argument between a Catholic and a Lutheran in the form of social media.
- Inspired by Luther, write your own list of questions and ideas about something you disagree with, then pin it to the classroom wall. Take the time to read and discuss each other’s work.
Some People Say...
“The Reformation was the most important event in Europe’s history.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- I’m not a Christian. Who cares?
- Even if you are not religious at all, the Reformation had a huge impact on the world: there was religious violence as recently as the 1990s in Ireland; persecuted Protestants helped to colonise America; European Empires spread the religion to Africa and Asia; and Protestant ideas about working hard and thinking for yourself still shape Western society.
- Will the two Churches merge?
- Probably not — although over the last 50 years they have settled some of the religious disputes which initially caused their split, such as on the subject of ‘justification’ (making something or someone righteous in the eyes of God). But as both Churches have declining memberships in the West, they may start to work more closely together in politics.
- Church door
- This legendary moment may be just that — legend — but the church door essentially doubled as a notice board; it was a common way for academics to begin a discussion.
- Printing presses
- This new technology was invented around 1450. The Reformation popularised it, as priests and academics discussed ideas in pamphlets.
- A way of reducing punishment for a sin.
- A state of ‘purification’ that Catholics must go through before heaven.
- The most serious penalty the Church can give, essentially banning someone from Catholicism.
- Protestantism now has many different branches, but this was the movement directly inspired by Luther.
- Henry VIII
- By making himself head of the Church of England, Henry VIII founded the branch of Protestantism known as Anglicanism.
- Thirty Years War
- Fought between 1618 and 1648 in central Europe.