As we prepare to celebrate the quincentennial of the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church has an anniversary of its own: fifty years since the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). The two are not unrelated.
Vatican II opened with high hopes in 1962. The first general council of the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican I in 1870, and only the second since the Council of Trent met from 1545 to 1563 in response to the Protestant Reformation, it gathered bishops from around the globe representing a number of diverse perspectives and interests. One of the more notable changes at the council was the unprecedented access granted to non-Catholic observers. One of those observers was George Lindbeck, the son of Lutheran missionaries to China and a freshly minted medievalist at Yale. Years later he recorded a revelation that still struck him and embodies the seismic shifts occurring at the time:
“Archbishop Elchinger of Strasbourg gave a speech in St. Peter’s on how much Catholics owe non-Catholics even in matters of faith. One example was biblical scholarship. But then he talked about the central “dogma of justification by faith”-first “defined,” as he put it, when the Jerusalem Council (as is reported in the Book of Acts and in Galatians) exempted Gentile Christians from circumcision and full Torah observance-that had at times been better maintained outside of than within Roman Catholicism. If Catholics were now rediscovering it, he said, this was largely because of the ecclesial communities that had been born in the sixteenth-century Reformation.
And at those words, to my surprise, I began to cry.
I remembered the reports from Vatican I of what had happened when Bishop Strossmeyer had said that there were millions of Protestants who truly loved the Lord Jesus; the cries of “heresy” and “blasphemy” got so loud that he was forced to leave the podium. The contrast between then and now was what made tears of joy roll down my cheeks. And I think that is the only time I have wept in public except at funerals.” 
For Lindbeck, as for many other Lutherans of the day, Vatican II reflected a stark departure from customary Lutheran-Roman Catholic relations. Theological and political tensions between the two traditions had intensified, especially in Europe, since the sixteenth century. Both sides lobbed epithets at each other and seldom took the theology of their separated brethren seriously. Yet here Roman Catholic bishops were found citing Luther and Lutheran doctrines. The documents of Vatican II reveals this volte-face. New emphasis was placed on the doctrine of revelation, the study of Scripture, the mystical and invisible qualities of the church, the need to engage in dialogue with other Christians (chiefly through the Lutheran-led ecumenical movement), and the participation of all the faithful in the liturgy. Many of these ideas came directly from the Reformation of the sixteenth century; others came under the influence of contemporary Protestants, in particular Lutherans.
How did Roman Catholicism get to this point? The history of Lutheran and Roman Catholic relations hardly anticipated it. The religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries resulted in European political settlements that gave secular rulers the right to choose the religion of their region. Tolerance, where it existed, was limited. Theology, both within the ecclesiastical establishments and within the universities, did nothing to mitigate the tensions, but often furthered them. Catholic thinkers came to blame much of secularized Enlightenment thought on the movement Luther started.
By the start of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, the cultural plates had shifted. Enlightenment visions of progress and secularism had led to two devastating global wars and the massive cost of life associated with them. The growth of constitutional democracies across Europe would soon unseat the churches from their places as leaders of society and eventually marginalize them altogether. Atheistic philosophies became dominant within the academic halls—replacing even the theistic liberal philosophies and theologies of modern thought—and seeped into popular thought and religious life. All of these dynamics led Lutherans and Catholics to reconsider their relationship to one another and would in turn influence the theological direction of the council.
No single example of this new disposition may be more instructive than the Catholic interpretation of Luther. In the four centuries following the Reformation, Luther had been pictured by Catholic historians and theologians as a pariah—literally a seven-headed monster, to use the image adorning a tract by Johann Cochlaeus in the sixteenth century. Just as Protestants continued vilifying the papacy and Catholic doctrine, Catholics produced deprecating portrayals of Luther. Little had changed by the start of the twentieth century. The two most famous Catholic interpreters of Luther at the time, the Dominican Heinrich Denifle and the Jesuit Hartmann Grisar, alternately attributed Luther’s failings to sexual deviance and personal neurosis.
This image would not last the century. The chief protagonist was Joseph Lortz, a German Catholic historian of the Reformation, who began to look more closely at Luther’s life and thought in its medieval context. He argued that Luther was caught in a transition from the medieval scholasticism of Aquinas to the late-medieval nominalism of William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel—the latter representing a degradation of Catholicism. Luther did not seek to reject the Catholic Church, according to Lortz, but rather he inherited a Catholicism that was from the start corrupted by the nominalists: Luther fought against a Catholicism he had learned that was not really “Catholic,” but a late-medieval deviation.
Others would pick up Lortz’s mantle. Erwin Iserloh considered Luther and his doctrine of justification inherently compatible with medieval mysticism. Peter Manns found in Luther’s second Galatians commentary a definition of justification that was congruent with Roman Catholic thought. Otto Hermann Pesch compared Luther with Aquinas and came to the conclusion that they were fundamentally in agreement on the doctrine of justification, but approached it from two entirely different vantage points—Luther from the “existential” perspective of the struggling sinner, Aquinas from the “sapiential” perspective of the omniscient God. Others could be added, including Hans Küng, Yves Congar, Louis Bouyer, Daniel Olivier, Jared Wicks, Dennis Janz, to name a few, but it is not necessary to proliferate examples. Without question, the renewed Roman Catholic interest in Luther and improved perception of him led to a healthier interaction with his ideas among the council fathers at Vatican II.
The consequences of this Roman Catholic interpretation of Luther were immediate and palpable. From the 1960s through the 1990s in Germany and the United States, Lutherans and Catholics entered theological dialogue with their estranged brethren. This resulted in numerous documents and volumes addressing various points of disputed doctrine from each perspective and attempts to reconcile the two positions, even attempts to reach agreement on them. The most famous, and controversial, was the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Though the document has not become widely influential or accepted, and granting also the questionable claims it makes, the simple fact that Lutherans and Catholics could produce such a document or address such a divisive topic speaks to a drastic turnabout in their relationship. That owes much, then as now, to the renewed Roman Catholic appreciation for and study of Martin Luther.
It also, however, leaves Lutheran Protestants in something of a quandary: How do we reciprocate that Catholic interest in our theological forebearer? At a conference on Vatican II some years ago, a noted Lutheran ecumenist asked why more Protestants had not become scholars of Vatican II or Aquinas the way many Roman Catholics had become scholars of Luther. The sad truth is that we have not reciprocated their interpretation of Luther. We have scarcely even tried. We have accepted the Catholic interpretation of Luther, agreed with it where we find it agreeable and critiqued it were we do not, but ultimately we have failed to value what the study of Roman Catholicism’s forebearers might offer us. We have not given sufficient attention to the myriad influences shaping Rome that might also be of benefit to our tradition.
One area I would suggest (and admitting a bias as a sometimes medievalist myself) is a sympathetic appreciation of medieval Christianity. We still live on outdated, Enlightenment-driven, somewhat Monty Pythonesque pictures of the Middle Ages and we still accept the heightened caricatures of medieval theology articulated by sixteenth-century Protestant theologians who were literally advocating for their lives. Can we put the time and commitment into understanding the long and complicated development, for instance, of the medieval papacy, beginning with the Gregorian reforms of the eleventh-century church and their cry for libertas ecclesiae (“freedom of the church”) from secular rule? What about the first so-called “Babylonian Captivity of the Church” in the Avignon papacy (1305–77), the various attempts to resolve the Great Western Schism (1378–1417), the reforms of the conciliar movement from Constance (1414–18) through Basel (1431–49), or even the efforts of the much maligned Renaissance papacy at restoring the architecture, art, curia, economic infrastructure, and political significance of Rome (which lasted until Leo V—the last Renaissance pope—on the eve of the Reformation)? Would that not provide us a clearer picture of the papacy and the church government that Luther inherited? Might it give us some sense of the historical difficulties that gave rise to the papacy of Luther’s day?
This is but one admittedly self-referential possibility. The larger question, though, remains not how we can reciprocate Roman Catholic interest in Luther, but whether we care to. I dare say the degree to which we are willing may reflect the degree to which we affirm that the catholicity of the una sancta extends beyond our denominational and theological boundaries.
Rick Serina, Concordia Seminary