That crazy gang of Evangelical Catholics at the ALPB always held that to be Lutheran was to be a reform movement within the Church Catholic. The brightest light of this was of course Richard Neuhaus, but there were many who never left the Lutheran Church. It is in that sense of Reform that I write this because it feels like a Kairos moment. It is not that the Wittenberg Catholic branch doesn’t have its own troubles, but we have different ones. In my observation all of the Roman Catholic travails of today should be forcing a review of the errors of the Council of Trent and the reappraisal of the Augsburg Confession. This little post is going to discuss two elements: confession and the marriage of clergy. There is going to be some significant hand-waving, but I’m going to assume that you my readers are knowledgeable enough to judge if I am being fair.
The Lutheran Church has long held that the real division of the reformation was over the doctrine of justification. I’m not refuting that justification was or might continue to be a division, but 20 years after the JDDJ there have been no significant further developments, and that document itself just didn’t cause much movement. My branch of Lutherans never accepted the JDDJ, but I’d like to suggest that justification is not the core of the disputes, at least not as far as Trent and Augsburg are concerned. Instead the problem is claimed papal authority which goes right back to the 95 theses. The Lutheran confessions notoriously label the Papacy as the Whore of Babylon. What they mean by that is simply that the papacy in its claims usurps the rightful role of Christ. It promulgates laws where Christ does not, and it withholds absolution where Christ has granted it.
The first example I wish to look at is the current and ongoing sexual scandal of priestly abuse. Article 23 of the Augsburg Confession lays out the Reformation’s reconciliation of exactly this issue. (Article 27 on monastic vows is supplementary.) It’s first line is “Complaints about unchaste priests are common.” The article on monastic vows adds the more unsavory sexual references. A recent blog post by Rod Dreher quotes a statistic, “at any one time no more than 50% of priests are practicing celibacy.” Since entering the pastorate, with wife and family, I can appreciate celibacy. I certainly admire those who are able to maintain it. But as St. Paul would say, this is a gift that not all have. Even Christ says, “not everyone can receive this saying.” Against the united testimony of Scripture, early church history and the Eastern church, Rome has continued to demand celibacy of its priests. When the numbers of unchaste priests are around 50%, celibacy is no longer a wholesome practice, but a good excuse to end the affair when you tire of it.[i] The unwholesomeness of the current practice is brought further into the light when read in light of Article 27. The 50% is not mostly priests having heterosexual affairs which in their sin are still naturally ordered, but includes a great number of homosexual affairs which sin is intrinsically disordered. What the reformation took as the distorted sexuality of the monastic experience is today lived in the midst of the flock. And the source is not scripture or even ancient tradition but Papal assertion.
The most interesting note in article 23 is the living memory of the imposition of celibacy in Germany. “They offered up such resistance that when the Archbishop of Mainz was about to publish the pope’s decree about celibacy, he was almost killed in a riot by enraged priests.” The Augsburg Confession does not eliminate celibacy or monasticism, but recognizes both the law and the gospel, primarily that such a thing should not be made into a law but can only be lived out of the power of the gospel. Likewise, that gospel can be lived out in the institution of marriage. The ongoing sexual abuse problem calls out for Rome to reconsider the wisdom of Article 23. The Papal promulgation of a law that Christ does not demand should be withdrawn.
The second example would stem from the Roman problem with divorce, remarriage and communion. It is this one that goes right back to the start of the Reformation. Luther’s 95 theses are an attack on the practice of Confession and indulgences. (I still hope to have published a longer article on this, but it is under consideration at this time, so this is a very quick rehearsal.) The Lutheran conception of confession is simple with two parts – confession and absolution. Our confession is an act of faith. The pronouncement of the absolution is the removal of the sin. One may still have to deal with temporal consequences of the sin (i.e. if you picked up herpes because of fornication you will have to deal with it the rest of your life), but the moral consequences (i.e. death) are gone. Without lessening the sin of breaking apart what God has joined together, divorce is not the unforgiveable sin. The absolution of God removes it and should restore one to full participation at the altar. The Roman Catholic conception of confession has three parts: confession, absolution and satisfaction. For the confession to have been proven true, and the absolution to have been received, the works of satisfaction must be made. In the case of remarriage, it is this satisfaction that would bar communion. The satisfaction for the sin of divorce is either to reunite with your spouse or to live in celibacy. A second marriage, following the words of Christ, is adultery. And it most certainly would be if one was unrepentant. But again we see in satisfaction a papal insertion of authority beyond that which Christ commands. Nowhere in scripture do we find passages that focus on repentance being our work or on the quality of that repentance. All we find are passages that speak of God granting repentance (for example Acts 5:31). Article 25 of the Augsburg Confession restores the joy of Thy salvation and gives to us the free Spirit.
My contention is that the core issue of the reformation is not justification but the abuse of papal authority and by extension church authority. In demanding satisfaction where Christ has already forgiven, we are Lords and not servants. Likewise in demanding celibacy where the freedom to marry is granted we steal the Lord’s throne. The scandals that currently toss the Roman church should highlight exactly the core problem of the 16th century – a refusal to repent of the usurpation of the authority of Christ by the office claiming to be the vicar of Christ. These crises that are swamping that communion are of such serious magnitude that this Lutheran can’t help but see the cry of God calling for repentance. My prayer is that it might be granted, and our sad divisions ceased.
[i] What I mean by this is what follows. If the unchaste priest number was say 5%, that is something that would be in the realm of sinful humans beset by temptation to an affair not a systematic problem. When the number is 50% that is a systematic problem. The picture is of priests maintaining sexual relationships just like the majority of the single population of America – serial monogamy, but they have the ultimate out. While the rest of the serial monogamists have to break-up which includes the “I don’t love you” scene, the priest can say “I love you, but I have a calling I need to be faithful to.” Cue the Thornsbirds and the great forbidden romance scene. The deeper problem in that statistic though is not the Thornbirds, but the fact that a lot of that 50% is homosexual. By disallowing marriage of priests, the Roman priesthood has been greatly skewed in its sexual proclivities. The loser is honest celibacy.