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ALTENBURG, Germany (ChurchMilitant.com) - A German ecumenical group consisting of Catholics and Protestants is asking the pope to lift the excommunication of Martin Luther, the chief catalyst for one of the biggest splits in the history of Christendom.
Led by Catholic academics Johanna Rahner of the University of Tübingen and Dorothea Sattler of the University of Münster, the Altenburg Ecumenical Discussion Circle is petitioning Pope Francis to remove Leo X's 1521 excommunication of Martin Luther and asking the Lutheran World Federation to revoke Luther's condemnation of the pope as an "Antichrist."
Noting ecumenical discussions between Catholics and Lutherans since Vatican II have gained traction, the group wants to remove both the Church's and Luther's mutual condemnations, which they claim stand in the way as "stopblocks" (prellböcke) to greater unity.
The group also wants the Catholic German Bishops' Conference and the Evangelical Church in Germany to publicly express regret over the unfortunate history, as well as a word of hope that the mutual condemnations can be lifted for the sake of unity.
In 2016, Cdl. Kurt Koch said the "Catholic Church cannot lift the excommunication because it's just finished by the death of a person."
He went on to say, "the other side is what we can say about Luther, and here we have many beautiful things that the popes have said ... the words of John Paul II on his visit in Germany, in Mainz, he said that we can learn many things from Luther."
"This is, for me, more important — what we can say about Luther and what we can learn from the theology and concerns of Luther," he concluded.
After providing Luther a chance to retract doctrinal errors, Leo X (1513–1521) excommunicated him and his followers in a papal bull titled Decet Romanum Pontificem (DRP), writing, "Martin himself — and it gives us grievous sorrow and perplexity to say this — the slave of a depraved mind, has scorned to revoke his errors within the prescribed interval and to send us word of such revocation, or to come to us himself."
"Nay," continues the bull, "like a stone of stumbling, he has feared not to write and preach worse things than before against us and this Holy See and the Catholic faith, and to lead others on to do the same."
After officially declaring Luther and his followers heretics, the DRP concludes: "No one whatsoever may infringe this, our written decision, declaration, precept, injunction, assignation, will, decree; or rashly contravene it. Should anyone dare to attempt such a thing, let him know that he will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul."
Three days before his death, Luther gave his last sermon in Eisleben, one in which he gave what he called his "final warning" against the Jews.
"They are our public enemies. They do not stop blaspheming our Lord Christ, calling the Virgin Mary a whore, Christ, a bastard, and us changelings or abortions. If they could kill us all, they would gladly do it," he said.
"They do it often, especially those who pose as physicians — though sometimes they help — for the Devil helps to finish it in the end," continued Luther. "They administer poison to someone from which he could die in an hour, a month, a year, 10 or 20 years. They are able to practice this art."
Martin Luther's last recorded act on earth was an attack on the papacy. He died on Feb. 18, 1546 at about 3 a.m.