VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - Pope Francis has rejected an appeal to reinstate expelled Augustinian monk Martin Luther on the 500th anniversary of his excommunication, which falls on Jan. 3, 2021.
The pontiff's highly significant overtures towards Lutherans over the last five years had raised hopes in ecumenical circles for the withdrawal of the bull of excommunication, Decet Romanum Pontificem, issued by Pope Leo X on Jan. 3, 1521.
Church Militant has learned that Francis will not revoke Luther's excommunication to mark the anniversary but instead use the occasion to intensify dialogue with Lutherans.
"There will be a special press release on Jan. 4 from both the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican on the steps being taken that lead us further on the path from conflict to communion," LWF Assistant General Secretary for Ecumenical Relations Professor Dr. Dirk G. Lange told Church Militant Wednesday.
Lange did not respond to the query regarding the possibility of a papal pardon for Luther — hailed as a "reformer" by Protestants and liberal Catholics but regarded by conservative Catholics as the "arch-heretic" who split the Western Church.
In June, around 30 Catholic and Protestant theologians from the Altenberg Ecumenical Discussion Group (Altenberger Ökumenischen Gesprächskreises) wrote to Pope Francis on Pentecost Sunday, urging him to repeal Pope Leo X's penalty of excommunication against Luther.
The signatories also called upon the LWF to withdraw Luther's verdict against the pope and his successors, denouncing them with the appellation of "Antichrist."
"Both condemnations still stand in the way of an ecumenical rapprochement between Catholics and Protestants," stated the declaration titled "Reconciliation after 500 years" (Versöhnung nach 500 Jahren).
Luther's legendary insults of the pope in his work Against the Roman Papacy: An Institution of the Devil include the statements: "Why would anyone tolerate such things from someone like you, a rotten paunch, crude ass and fart-ass?" and "You are a crude ass, and an ass you will remain!"
"Ecumenism thrives on symbolic acts and the withdrawal of the bull of excommunication against Luther would be particularly significant," remarked dogmatic theologian Johanna Rahner from the Faculty of Roman-Catholic Theology of Tübingen University.
Rahner, a member of the Altenberg Group, argued that passages from Pope Paul VI's decree Unitatis Redintegratio, which was passed at the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) and deals with ecumenism, could be interpreted as the lifting of Luther's excommunication.
Dr. Hans-Georg Link, pastor of the Evangelical Church Association in Cologne and head of the Altenberg Group said the 500th anniversary of the excommunication of Martin Luther "would be the right time to address the issue."
The ecumenical theologians also asked the Catholic German Bishops' Conference and the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) to issue a joint declaration of repentance for the events of that time with the hope that the opposing position that led to the split of the Western Church would be overcome.
The Vatican announced in November that WLF secretary general Pastor Martin Junge had written the preface to Pope Francis' book Heaven on Earth: Love and Serve to Transform the World.
In September, the Vatican endorsed the naming of a hilltop square in Rome after Martin Luther following a request by the Seventh-day Adventist sect.
The square named Piazza Martin Lutero "in memory of Luther's achievements," is the Oppian Hill, a park area overlooking the Colosseum.
In Oct. 2016, Pope Francis credited Luther with offering to the Church the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
"The spiritual experience of Martin Luther challenges us to remember that apart from God we can do nothing. 'How can I get a propitious God?' This is the question that haunted Luther. In effect, the question of a just relationship with God is the decisive question for our lives," Francis said in Lund, Sweden, at a joint Catholic-Lutheran celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
Earlier, on Jan. 15, 2016, a delegation of Finnish Lutherans headed by Lutheran bishop Samuel Salmi were given Holy Communion at St. Peter's Basilica following a meeting with Pope Francis.
In Nov. 2017, the Vatican Philatelic Office issued a postage stamp celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, marking the day on which Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door on Oct. 31, 1517.
The stamp "depicts in the foreground Jesus crucified and in the background a golden and timeless view of the city of Wittenberg," a Vatican statement announced.
The stamp portrays Luther to the left of the Cross, kneeling in "a penitential disposition" and holding "the Bible, source and destination of his doctrine." On the right is Philip Melanchthon, "one of the main protagonists of the reform," holding the Augsburg Confession — "the first official public presentation of the principles of Protestantism written by him."
On June 21, 1520, Pope Leo X issued the bull Exsurge Domine against 41 of Luther's theses, stating: "We condemn, reprobate and reject completely each of these theses or errors as either heretical, scandalous, false, offensive to pious ears or seductive of simple minds, and against Catholic truth."
Luther rebuffed Leo X's offer of 60 days to recant. Instead, on the 60th day, Luther and fellow "reformer" Melanchthon burned in Wittenberg a copy of the bull, along with papal constitutions and books of canon law and scholastic theology.
Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have also spoken well of Luther.
In 1983, John Paul II commended Luther as the theologian who "contributed in a substantial way to the radical change in the ecclesiastical and secular reality in the West," noting that "our world still experiences his great impact on history."
On his visit in 2011 to the Augustinian Monastery in Erfurt, Benedict XVI praised Luther, saying: "He was driven by the question about God, and this became the deep passion and driving force of his life and of his whole life's journey."
The LWF and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity had announced in January 2020 plans for a joint service in Rome on the 500th anniversary of Luther's excommunication on January 3, 1521.
The service will now take place on June 25, 2021, "in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, which was publicly presented on this day in 1530."
The Vatican did not respond to Church Militant's query on whether Pope Francis would consider lifting Luther's excommunication.