WASHINGTON (CNS) — To understand Martin Luther’s impact on the Second Vatican Council and the era that has followed it, one must first understand the context of Luther’s break with the church 500 years ago, according to German theologian Johanna Rahner.

“Don’t skip the Middle Ages,” advised Rahner, a professor of systematic theology at Tubingen University in Germany, who holds the chair of dogmatics, history of dogma and ecumenical theology at the school.

Three issues that arose during Luther’s time and were embraced by Luther and others of the era were what Rahner called “a turn toward a more inward, intensive form of piety,” the growing prominence of the notion of being saved through one’s faith, and a “growing discontent with the ways the church acts as a spiritual mediator,” Rahner said.


“You can imagine” how these issues put growing pressure on the Catholic Church of Luther’s time, she added.

Rahner, who is a member of the Ecumenical Study Group of Protestant and Catholic Theologians, gave the final address of the May 30-June 1 “Luther and the Shaping of the Catholic Tradition” held at The Catholic University of America in Washington.

The issues and the pressures on the Catholic Church as an institution were “epochal,” Rahner suggested. “Even without Luther, you would have seen a different church in the 16th century,” she said.

“The church in the 16th century had been sitting on an ecclesiological powder keg.”

Rahner said Catholic leaders of Luther’s time dealt less with the substance of Luther’s own ecclesiology and theology than his challenge to papal authority. Cardinal Thomas Cajetan, who was sent to tamp down Luther’s challenge, was “a strict proponent of the papal state,” she added. “Luther’s ecclesiology must be understood” in this context, she noted.

While Luther had labored to reform the Catholic Church itself, by 1520 his emphasis had shifted to forming “an ecclesiastical alternative,” Rahner said, “based on the Gospel, the word of God, in which the main characteristic is the preaching of the Gospel.”

She noted that St. Francis of Assisi’s renunciation of wealth and power in favor of a life of poverty and humility, which took place three centuries before the Reformation, could be seen today as his own dismissal of the institutional church of his time. However, the church came to embrace Francis while it condemned Luther, Rahner added.

Luther held that “only a suffering, persecuted church resembles Christ,” Rahner said.

The church needed to consider the consequences of an “extreme papalism” and a “tribal ecclesiology” which she said it had wrought in differentiating itself from Luther’s positions. The Council of Trent had the opportunity to deal with this issue but opted to see how the situation worked itself out rather than deal with it directly.

This began to change in the 19th century following the anti-clericalism put on display during the French Revolution plus the loss of the Papal States, according to Rahner, leading some leaders within the church to ponder whether its approach had grown “outdated,” but “the Catholic Church of the 19th century had no answer to such questions,” she said.

“It would take more than 400 years for the Roman Catholic Church to recognize” the veracity of Luther’s words. By then, the Vatican II era had grown to full flower. Rahner cited the council documents “Dei Verbum,” on divine revelation, and especially “Lumen Gentium,” on the church, as containing passages that, without mentioning Luther specifically, at least tacitly acknowledged his positions.

This signaled what Rahner called “Luther’s coming home.”

The Catholic Church of today may still be sniffing out “the smell of heresy lingering to possible alternatives,” Rahner said, but Pope Francis’ call — issued in 2013, early in his papacy — for a more synodal model of church less dependent on papal pronouncements recognizes “some need for decentralization.”

Rahner also lauded Pope Francis’ call for the church “to go outside of itself” when he made the distinction “not just the geographical, but the existential peripheries.”