The Reformation, 500 Years Later

The man who started it all: German theologian and religious reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546)
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Five hundred years after a rebellious act by a single German monk divided the Christian world, religious leaders on both sides of that split have finally agreed their churches share responsibility for the historic rupture.

On Oct. 31, 1517, an outspoken university lecturer and Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted a list of objections to the dominant Roman Catholic beliefs and practices of his time. Chief among his grievances was the church’s claim that Christians could buy their way out of punishment for sin — and thus shorten their time in purgatory — by purchasing a letter of “indulgence” from their local parish. In practice, much of the money went into the pockets of corrupt local princes.

Whether Luther nailed his list to the door of his hometown church, as legend has it, or simply mailed it to his archbishop is in dispute, but his “95 Theses” represented a stunning challenge to papal authority and the entire Holy Roman Empire.

The split that followed, known as the Protestant Reformation, fostered the development of religious and political freedoms in Europe but also set the stage for persecution and war. Catholic-Protestant enmity endured for centuries.

On the Reformation anniversary, however, the Lutheran Church, founded by Luther himself, and the Roman Catholic Church that rejected Luther’s protest have achieved at least a partial reconciliation.

“Catholics should do penance for setting the stage for the [division],” says Bishop Denis Madden of Baltimore, who heads the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “It was not out of the blue that [Luther’s protest] happened. The society, the church, the way things were being done at that time, called for reform, and there were very few courts of appeal where that reform could begin.”

For their part, Lutheran leaders are approaching the Reformation anniversary with comparable humility. “We’ve had to say that breaking up the western church was not a gift to the church,” says the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the largest of the Lutheran denominations.

In fact, many of the issues that Martin Luther highlighted have since been addressed by Roman Catholic leaders. The sale of indulgence letters proved especially indefensible.


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SOURCE: NPR, Tom Gjelten