Roman Catholic reception of Luther in the twentieth century: Magisterial positions and their ecumenical significance

Gregory Lawrence Sobolewski, Marquette University


In order to clarify Luther's significance for Catholics, this study investigates the contemporary Roman Catholic magisterial opinion of Luther from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) through the quincentennial of his birth (1983). Herein "Catholic magisterial view" refers to the teachings of the Holy See, i.e., the teachings of the Pope and of the congregations and offices that are under his immediate jurisdiction. This study argues that Roman Catholic magisterial opinion of Martin Luther has undergone a fundamental shift, now considering Luther to be an authentic reformer in contrast to its previous evaluation of him as a misguided renegade. Illustration of this claim begins with an overview of how most Catholic scholars have abandoned the polemical assessments of their predecessors in order to establish a positive appraisal of Luther. Further, an evaluation of the magisterial appraisal of Luther in the sixteenth century clarifies the starting point of official Catholic responses to the reformer. Magisterial revaluation has occurred largely under the influence of an ecclesiology of communion that emerged at the Second Vatican Council. Together with this reorientation of Catholic ecclesiological doctrine, papal and curial statements during recent Luther-celebrations have produced clear evidence that Luther is seen by the magisterium as an authentic reformer and a perceptive theologian. Current magisterial appreciation of Luther acknowledges his reforming impulses and genuine dedication to the common life under the Christian Trinity enunciated in the Word of God and corresponding traditions. Official acknowledgment of Catholic complicity in the divisive events of the sixteenth century and concurrent appreciation of Luther's diversified theology must be viewed in conjunction with a strong magisterial desire for theological and doctrinal clarity in current Christian reconciliation. Thus, this study notes that magisterial concerns about Luther's theology have not disappeared. Finally, these historical data are related to issues regarding Luther and the Catholic ecumenical pace, popular Catholic ecumenism, and the credibility of Christianity. The dissertation suggests that Catholics consider Luther as a prophet in order to provide the doctrinal latitude, ecclesiological fidelity and ecumenical witness for today's Christians who are less able to debate Luther than to image him.

Recommended Citation

Sobolewski, Gregory Lawrence, "Roman Catholic reception of Luther in the twentieth century: Magisterial positions and their ecumenical significance" (1993). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9411526.