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The Protestant Reformation 500 years on



On Monday night, I was in the Green Room preparing to go on the ABC Q&A program with Archbishop Glenn Davies, the Anglican archbishop of Sydney to discuss same sex marriage. He was accompanied by some very theologically literate Sydney Anglicans.

Luther posting his 95 theses in 1517I told one of them that I was to speak here this evening on 'The Protestant Reformation — 500 years on', and I was wondering where I should start. He asked my views on justification. I said that I did not think it was much of an issue nowadays, and that it was probably more a matter of philosophical rather than theological differences. I don't think he shared my view. But the good thing was that we were having a perfectly civil conversation.

The first thing to note about this 500th anniversary of the Reformation is that it is the first centenary celebration or commemoration that we have been able to share together and without rancour. I am delighted to be the theological product of the most ecumenical enterprise ever undertaken in the post-Reformation Church in this part of the world. As a Jesuit, I received my training in philosophy mainly in the faculty at the University of Melbourne. Eric D'Arcy, later a Catholic archbishop, introduced me to the political philosophy of John Rawls and Robert Nozick.

I received my theological training at the United Faculty of Theology based at Ormond College at the University of Melbourne. Half my lecturers were Jesuits. But the other half were professors from the Uniting Church and the Anglican Church. We studied together. We recreated together. We prayed together. And with some awkwardness we came to the Eucharistic table together with differing perceptions, rules and etiquette for Eucharistic hospitality. Though we all agreed that it was the table of the Lord, we saw a need to supervise the table as if it were ours.

My theological education was punctuated as usual in Jesuit formation by a few years working at different tasks. I started by teaching year 10 mathematics at Xavier College. I was then briefly associate to Sir William Deane when he was a judge of the newly established Federal Court. After some months at the Melbourne Bar, I was then appointed as adviser to the Queensland Catholic Bishops on Aboriginal Affairs. This appointment arose because the heads of the Catholic, Anglican and Uniting Churches in Queensland were worried about the pending 1982 Commonwealth Games where there were ongoing public tensions between the premier Sir Joh Bjelke Petersen and Aborigines and their supporters campaigning for land rights.

After four years involvement with those church leaders, it was only natural when I was ordained a Catholic priest in St Stephens Cathedral Brisbane that the Anglican archbishop and the moderator of the Uniting Church be on the sanctuary at the ceremony. It was my privilege to offer them a blessing as an integral part of the ceremony. If we had set out to arrange ecumenical participation in the ordination service even with some years of preparation and discussion, it is unlikely that anything would have resulted. But as we had worked together for four years with a common conviction that the gospel of Jesus Christ demanded justice for the first Australians, it was only natural that we should pray and celebrate together when I was being ordained.

Some years later, I was attending the ordination of two Aboriginal priests in the Anglican Church on Palm Island, the largest Aboriginal community in Australia. There were four of us white Catholic priests in attendance. We had all ministered in Aboriginal communities. Before the celebration we got together to work out how much and how little we could be involved in the ceremony. We decided that it would be inappropriate to lay hands on the ordinands at the rite of ordination. We would hang off to the side.


"We are at our best ecumenically when we work and pray together for justice for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalised and the planet."


In his homily, the Aboriginal Anglican bishop Arthur Malcolm told the two married men who were long-time residents of Palm Island with their families that they needed to be available to be sent on mission anywhere in Australia just as Fr Brennan does. This was not the sort of attention I was seeking. Shortly thereafter, the bishop convened the Anglican presbyterate around him and invited all to lay hands on the candidates. Once they were all positioned, the bishop looked around and spotted the four white Catholic priests in a back pew on the sanctuary. He called out, 'Hey, you lot. Over here.' Despite all the controversies of the European Reformation, we complied with no option, and happily so.

The appetite for ecumenical activity has waned since the days of my theological training in the 1980s. We are at our best ecumenically when we work and pray together for justice for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalised and the planet. We rarely get it right when we come to the table of the Lord together. There are still outstanding matters of theological controversy which do not trouble many of us. But then again, it would cause a lot of trouble to attempt to avoid the theological constraints.

I had the privilege of studying with the first batch of women to be ordained to priesthood in the Anglican Church. I accompanied some of them to the heated synod debate which preceded the decision to permit individual dioceses to ordain women. I note that one of my fellow students is about to be installed as the first female Anglican archbishop in Australia. Studying with them helped me to become a strong supporter of women's ordination in my own Church. But I don't expect to see it in my lifetime, in part because the Roman Church needs to work and decide these things universally. You need the same rule to apply not only to every Australian diocese but to every diocese throughout the world. Imagine if the Anglicans had to wait for Sydney or Nigeria before ordaining women anywhere. That's the situation with the Roman church.

I am not a theologian. I am a fairly well educated Catholic priest who works a lot in the public square. I don't lie awake at night worrying about Luther's views on justification. Neither is my justification the first thought and prayer of each day. In his splendid book Trent, the American Jesuit church historian John O'Malley says that Martin Luther set the agenda for the Council of Trent. Luther's challenge to the church was 'an idea about how we are saved, namely by faith alone and not by works, not by our own striving. That insight, though based upon his study of Saint Paul, was for him not so much an abstract doctrine to which one gave intellectual assent as the answer to personal anguish. That fact helps explain the passion with which he professed it and the language in which he expressed it.'

The Australian Jesuit scripture theologian Brendan Byrne explains, 'While in conventional Jewish expectation justification is something that the righteous might hope to receive from God at the last judgment on the basis of their law-righteousness, for Paul, through the death and resurrection of Christ, God has brought forward the verdict of justification for believers, enabling them to enjoy, while still on the way to full salvation, the final relationship with God (divine filiation) attested by the Spirit.'

If we are justified by God here and now, what is the point of good works? How else could our justification here and now manifest itself and play itself out without the performance of good works?

The tension which took Luther outside the church remained within the Church with the Jesuits and Dominicans locked in mortal combat in 16th century Spain in the De Auxiliis controversy. The dispute was over grace and free will. The Dominicans thought the Jesuits were Pelagians giving too much emphasis to free will and the Jesuits countered that the Dominicans were Calvinists placing too much emphasis on God's grace. This dispute became even more intractable with the showdown between the Jesuits and the Jansenists in France.

Ultimately all Christians find themselves to be sinners dependent on God's grace affirming belief in a God whose love and mercy are boundless but never forced or predetermined on the human person who is free to respond well or badly, selfishly or selflessly, living the two great commandments of love of God and love of neighbour. Brendan Byrne sums up the situation beautifully:

'Whereas for Protestants the writings of Paul are the centre of the New Testament, Catholics are much more focused upon the Gospels, where justification is hardly an issue. The key issue is how can we be instruments of the Rule (Kingdom) of God that is still striving to reclaim the world for true humanity according to the original design of the Creator. The Christian church, for all its failings and palpable human ills, is called to proclaim the Good News of God's intervention in Christ and to live as a beachhead of the Rule of God that he brought into the world (see Sermon on the Mount).'

John O'Malley says, 'The fundamental problem in reconciling the two positions is that they are manifestations of different intellectual cultures, the one more academic and analytical, the other more personal and existential ... Luther's justification-by-faith-alone was his eureka experience that, as he saw it, liberated him from the jaws of spiritual death. He clung to it, therefore, for dear life. Trent's decree was the intellectuals' emotionally cool response to Luther's spiritual anguish.'

I am one of those Catholics who delights not to live in a theocracy dominated by the papacy. I enjoy what Rowan Williams when Archbishop of Canterbury often described as my multiple affiliations as a member of the Catholic Church and as a citizen of a robust, pluralistic democratic society. I do lament that there is an increasing number of citizens who think that an essential attribute of a secular society is that a non-religious or anti-religious perspective should always be trumps in the public square. No ultimate world view should be trumps, not even a secularist one centred on individual autonomy and equality with little regard for the common good and community.


"Pope Francis models and reminds us is that salvation by grace is not a one off personal event. It is a conviction that believing in God does not mean we transcend our human condition." — Kylie Burgess


I am also one of those Catholics who delights in some aspects of the other Christian Churches spared some of the barnacles on the barque of Peter. But I cherish my membership of the Catholic Church because like Geraldine Doogue, I believe 'as a source of ongoing consolation and meaning, of searching alongside others not merely alone, the broader Catholic Church simply has no peer.' In this ecumenical age, I am even more delighted to share the strengths of our tradition. I was very touched to hear the Anglican bishop George Browning say to me shortly after the election of Pope Francis, 'I do like our new pope.' Someone like Pope Francis is good news for all Christians and for all the world.

I asked a Protestant member of my staff at Catholic Social Services what the 500th anniversary of the Protestant reformation meant to her as a younger Australian working in Catholic Social services. Kylie Burgess replied:

'Luther challenged clericalism. He raised our awareness to the priesthood of all believers. That we are all saved by grace, not of our own strength and making, saved to be a part of the work of God in the world. There is no distinction in the Kingdom of God but all take up their human dignity in community. All have a capacity to participate in the outflow of the love of God through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.

'Pope Francis models and reminds us is that salvation by grace is not a one off personal event. It is a conviction that believing in God does not mean we transcend our human condition. The Catholic tradition brings an emphasis on the incarnate God. As we live the reality of life and journey closely with those on the margins, those who experience life with suffering, we become more Christlike. Our conversion is communal. It is relational and it leads to transformed societies.'

In an ecumenical spirit, I asked my Uniting Church colleague Claerwen Little, the CEO of UnitingCare Australia what the 500th anniversary of the Reformation meant to her. She wrote: 'For the Uniting Church in Australia, our post-denominational identity is centred around this reconciling love of God in Christ, that calls the church into existence and moves the church to work towards reconciliation with the First Peoples, and for us to seek wider unity with all diverse people of God in Australia. The celebration of Reformation 500 is a calling to us to be the light and salt in the world. The justification of faith, which includes sanctification of people, can indeed become a collective life to transform the world.'

I say 'Amen, Alleluia' to that. I hope that by the 600th anniversary we will be together at the table of the Lord. While we continue to claim it as our table rather than His, we will maintain our divisions. We need each other to help rectify the abuses which occur within our own versions of Christianity and we are called to share the riches of our tradition with all who seek God's love and mercy. Five hundred years on, I thank God for Luther and for Trent. But that's probably because I am a 21st century Jesuit. Thank you.



Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia. This text is from his address to the Sydney Institute on Thursday 26 October 2017

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Reformation, Martin Luther



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Existing comments

Thank you Fr. Frank Brennan. You were a voice of compassion, empathy and all that is decent and fair, on Q & A this week, with your measured and well reasoned comments on same sex marriage. Your work, for decades, advocating the rights of Aboriginal Australians has also been exemplary, as has your unrelenting pursuit of human rights, the rights of the refugee and a 'Bill of Rights' for all Australians. In this article, focused on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, your deeply considered and small 'c' catholic approach to ecumenism adds yet another pillar to your modest temple of moral and ethical reasoning.

Shane Howard | 26 October 2017  

On 12 October, I attended theTranslation of St Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, a seervice shared with Westminster Cathedral with choirs of both particiipating. The dean's words: 'this Evensong is a celebration of our common heritage....Here at the Shrine of St Edward, wepray for the gift of unity which is Christ's own divine will'. As an Anglican with a Roman Catholic daughter and grandchildren, I say amen.

SUSAN E HOOKE | 27 October 2017  

Fr. Brennan has put it so succinctly: The appetite for ecumenical activity has waned since the days of my theological training in the 1980s. We are at our best ecumenically when we work and pray together for justice for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalised and the planet. We rarely get it right when we come to the table of the Lord together. There are still outstanding matters of theological controversy which do not trouble many of us. But then again, it would cause a lot of trouble to attempt to avoid the theological constraints.

Shirley Colless | 27 October 2017  

The Reformation has two wings, one descended from Luther, the other from Calvin. Both oppose the Catholic Church to say that a Christian can reach the truth through a private facility of conscience without pesky meddling by men in vestments. This is a fundamental belief to both. And yet, on the fundamental question of whether the words of Christ about his Body and Blood are to be taken literally or symbolically, the collective consciences of one wing oppose but have no definite way to refute the consciences of the other. And so, a fundamental belief of the Reformation cannot answer a fundamental question of its faith. However, like all monuments to the durability of the human will, this castle in the air has existed for 500 years and will probably exist for many more.

Roy Chen Yee | 29 October 2017  

Roy, as a Catholic I don't see our "pesky... men in vestments" as my sole path to truth (or salvation, if that's what you mean by "truth"). Our clerics are merely reenacting an eternal truth - sacramentally (which implies an element of mystery that can't be fully articulated or grasped). In this sense, I can't see a sharp line between what's literal and what's symbolic. And our Protestant brothers and sisters may theorise about their direct/private line to the truth without need of clerics, but in practice their obsession with hierarchy and job descriptions is just as bureaucratic as Catholicism. And many Catholic priests have perhaps embraced the "priesthood of the people" idea in practice even more than Protestants in an attempt to bridge this ideological gap.

Aurelius | 03 November 2017  

On the formation of priests. In this very modernistic Vatican document, the Holiness of a priest, and consequently his credibility, his catholic morality is altogether something else not mentioned here by Pope Benedict XVI. ...In the light of such teaching, this Dicastery, in accord with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, believes it necessary to state clearly that the Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question[9], cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practise homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called "gay culture".   http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccatheduc/documents/rc_con_ccatheduc_doc_20051104_istruzione_en.html

AO | 03 November 2017  

Aurelius: “Our clerics are merely reenacting an eternal truth - sacramentally (which implies an element of mystery that can't be fully articulated or grasped). In this sense, I can't see a sharp line between what's literal and what's symbolic.” Aurelius, there’s a difference between reenacting a mystery which you don’t fully understand and not knowing what it is that you’re reenacting. All the ministers know what they are reenacting. Catholic priests believe that the consecrated host is the real flesh of Jesus and the consecrated wine his real blood. Lutherans believe that the consecrated host contains the real flesh and the consecrated wine contains the real blood. Calvinists believe that the host or cracker and wine or grape juice remains as such. Everybody knows which side of the sharp line they’re on.

Roy Chen Yee | 05 November 2017  

Thanks, Roy. I'm quite aware of the doctrine of transubstantiation which, for me, merely expounds the mystery. Such a sharp division in the understanding of what we claim is a fundamental of our faith can either mean that one half is totally wrong, or that truth lies somewhere in between (meaning it's still a mystery)

AURELIUS | 08 November 2017  

Whether we are Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox, whatever we believe about the Triune God, and indeed the Eucharist, is by faith. This, with baptism is our common source, and it is this that we must celebrate together. Thus, when it comes to understandings of the Eucharist, it is by faith, and therefore, I suggest we cannot withhold it from anyone who seeks a deeper relationship with God in Christ. The 'table of the Lord' is for all of us who seek that relationship with Christ and each other and cannot be witheld on doctrinal grounds. To do so is to believe that we have some inside knowledge of the complete mystery that is God, and indeed we end up playing God.

Thomas Amory | 13 November 2017  

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