Martin Luther, Father at Vatican II

When I took my first theology class at St. John’s University, the professor (a Benedictine monk) stated that Martin Luther was, in a sense, a silent father at the Second Vatican Council. The statement must have made an impression on me, for I have thought about it often ever since.

At the beginning of this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I’d like to make the case for Martin Luther, the great sixteenth-century reformer, as a father of the Second Vatican Council.

Both Luther and Vatican II saw something wrong with the church’s liturgical life and saw the need to reform it.

Both Luther and Vatican II saw liturgical reform, to a great extent, as going back to earlier times in the apostolic tradition and pruning away unfortunate accretions of later development.

Both Luther and Vatican II wanted to increase active, direct participation in the liturgy, and to that end advocated for vernacular worship. But interestingly, both preserved a place for liturgical Latin. Near the end of his life, Luther celebrated Mass at which the choir sang the whole Mass Ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei) in Latin, to the surprise and disappointment of some of his followers. Luther thought people who don’t appreciate Latin choral music are stupid idiots.

Both Luther and Vatican II wanted increased emphasis on Scripture, with more Scripture readings and more Scripture-based preaching.

Both Luther and Vatican II wanted increased emphasis on the dignity of baptism (sometimes advanced as “the priesthood of all believers”), and wanted to put a check on clericalism that exalts clergy and puts down laity.

Both affirmed (at least implicitly) both Scripture and Tradition, slogans of Sola Scriptura notwithstanding. (I mean it as a compliment when I say that Lutherans have never really held to that slogan.) Both reaffirmed broad continuity with inherited liturgical tradition. As the Augsburg Confessions later put it: “We do not abolish the Mass but religiously keep and defend it…”

And so forth.

Yes, yes, there are differences between the teachings of Martin Luther and those of the Second Vatican Council. Of course. We all know that. Every similarity listed above requires nuancing and making distinctions and all that. Fine. Go write it up in your next book. If it needs to be so for you, parse it so that Vatican II did it right, or did it better, and did so without changing any core Catholic teachings.

But still, here’s the point: The Second Vatican Council admitted, at least implicitly if not explicitly, that we (the Catholic Church) were wrong about some things, and Luther was right. Even in the most conservative reading of Vatican II, even in the most ideological “hermeneutic of continuity”-driven account of how Vatican II supposedly should have been implemented, there still remains a good bit of overlap between what Luther did 500 years ago and what the ol’ RCC did at the Council.

It is a sad reality that, 50 plus years after the close of the Second Vatican Council, some Catholics are so ambivalent about this. On the web you will find some of the vilest statements imaginable about Martin Luther written by Roman Catholics. Some people act as if we’re somehow stronger if we never admit fault and are always right.

But churches are like people. Do you know any people who are never wrong and never change? I think we all know that, behind their supposed strength, there is some rather immature insecurity.

You would think that people who live by the Gospel, who know themselves to be forgiven sinners, who know the joy of admitting weaknesses and faults and being pulled up by the surprise of grace, would be the first to admit the truth about themselves and the last to claim that they’re always right.

Yes, Luther said some truly vile things. If you want to bash Luther, he left behind all too much material for you to do so. He was a product of his times on some issues. And remember, Luther wasn’t a systematician. Unlike Calvin, he never wrote an “Institutes of the Christian Religion.” He responded ad hoc to whatever came up, and blasted away at the problem in front of him. (He’d be a blogger if he were alive today, I’m convinced.) He changed his mind and sometimes contradicted himself.

Rule of thumb: before you ever say “Luther taught…,” keep in mind that he might well have said something different on another day. The Luther who said that Communion four times a year is a good minimum also said that the papists celebrate Mass too much – and it shouldn’t be more than once a day! (And there are loads of Luther’s writings not yet translated into English, including some statements of his that don’t sound very Lutheran or sound rather Catholic.)

The credibility of our witness as Christians, I am convinced, is directly tied to our ability to move, as believers and as churches, from arrogance to humility. Plenty of skeptical young people see us religious types as arrogant and judgmental, and they want no part of it.

I teach theology to undergrads. I find them to be open-minded, interested in new ideas, and fascinated by what Christianity could be about – even if plenty of them are not church-goers. (But at a place like this, many of them are church goers, and most of them come from a church-going environment.) Near the end of last semester, after a section on liturgy and social justice, I asked the class whether they thought organized religion makes people more open and loving or more narrow-minded and arrogant. They seemed hesitant to speak up (there I am, in my monastic habit, looking very much like “organized religion” to them), so I asked for an easier and less threatening show of hands. How many vote for narrow-minded? Class of 24, about 20 hands go up. About 2 for the other (i.e. our) side. And these are the students at a Catholic university!

The credibility of Christianity has long since reached a state of crisis for young people. This year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which begins today, is an opportunity for all of us to become a bit more credible in our witness, and to move a bit closer to the Gospel we profess to believe in.

On the Catholic side, we can start by giving thanks for Martin Luther, father at the Second Vatican Council.








17 responses to “Martin Luther, Father at Vatican II”

  1. John Mann Avatar
    John Mann

    I was once helping a Protestant friend with a paper on Luther’s liturgical reforms. A pattern developed. She would cite a Lutheran critique of a Catholic liturgical practice and I would respond with, “We used to do that but now we do it as Luther suggested.” In the end, we arrived at the same realization: Liturgically, Catholics are now Lutherans.

    Many traditionalists will point to this provocative post and comments like mine as proof that the Church has gone astray since Vatican II. I take it as proof that liturgically, Luther was fairly reasonable. That’s not even to say that the Church was wrong. The Church’s stubbornness helped to safeguard its liturgical treasures and we are better off for it in some ways.

    As for college students rejecting authority, there’s nothing new about that. I wouldn’t draw any lessons from it.

    1. Roger Engstrom Avatar
      Roger Engstrom

      @John Mann:
      I’m a graduate of St. Olaf and have been a Lutheran from Baptism, confirmation, marriage to today and my final committal to the grave. I also refer to myself as “Catholic Light”. We have so many teachings and concepts in common, we are indeed, “One Holy catholic church” (please note the small ‘c’ in catholic). BTW, I prefer communion (the mass) at each service.

  2. Elisabeth Ahn Avatar
    Elisabeth Ahn

    Luther thought people who didn’t appreciate Latin choral music were stupid idiots.


    This was a great read.
    Thank you, Father.

  3. Bill deHaas Avatar
    Bill deHaas

    What a great summary – like you, had theology profs cite Luther and VII in the same way (including one prof who was a peritus)

  4. Charles Sardo Avatar
    Charles Sardo

    Hi, this is my first time posting here, but given how Vatican II was a watershed moment in Catholic-Jewish relations, to call Luther a “silent father of Vatican II” is not just inaccurate but offensive and makes a mockery of the council. It would be hard to find a text so far from “On the Jews and their Lies” (blueprint for Kristallnacht if there ever was one) as “Nostrae Aetatea,” and the same goes for the removal of anti-semitic passages from the Good Friday liturgy. Vatican II was a clear break from the anti-semitic past represented by Luther and other Catholics, and this was despite his influence, not because of it.

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      @Charles Sardo:
      The post refers to Luther’s liturgical work, not his statements on the Jews.

      As my post says, Luther said vile things. I would not minimize them, and I emphasize strongly that I reject anti-Semitism in any form. There is vile anti-Semitism in many, many Catholic and Protestant sources throughout history, unfortunately.


  5. Robert Cruz Avatar
    Robert Cruz

    While I disagree with many of the points, as a former Lutheran it is refreshing to see a Catholic article on Luther that not only recognizes that you could find a Luther quote for just about any position but also manages to cite the Augsburg Confession. Thank you.

  6. John Doc Ortman Avatar
    John Doc Ortman

    Thank you Father Anthony! WIth the rest of the brothers and sisters already in the kingdom Blessed Martin, I am sure, rejoices. It is sad that it has come to pass, in an age of instant communication, that no one is ever allowed to mis-speak, or to be allowed to change and grow in understanding and nuance. Martin did indeed think and say some unfortunate things; don’t we all. Amen that God is bigger than all of our foolishness, misunderstandings, and folly.

  7. Jack Wayne Avatar
    Jack Wayne

    Lutherans don’t seem to be as overtly against things like ad orientem worship, communion rails, and keeping “outdated” language in their beloved traditional hymns. I’d love it if we Catholics could adopt that liturgical attitude.

  8. Gerard Flynn Avatar
    Gerard Flynn

    Thanks, Anthony, for this persuasive and timely article.

  9. Michael O'Connor Avatar
    Michael O’Connor

    Nice post. Luther would doubtless have agreed with the tenor of SC 155 “Great importance is to be attached to the teaching and practice of music” [in seminaries, novitiates, schools, etc]. “To impart this instruction, teachers are to be carefully trained and put in charge of the teaching of sacred music.”
    He and his followers did a far better job of it than the RCC has so far. We could learn a lot from an attitude that produced JS Bach and co.

  10. Robert Moore Avatar

    Thanks for this great article . . . I would never of thought of Luther as a Father of Vatican II.

    As you said . . .
    “But churches are like people. Do you know any people who are never wrong and never change? I think we all know that, behind their supposed strength, is some rather immature insecurity.

    You would think that people who live by the Gospel, who know themselves to be forgiven sinners, who know the joy of admitting weaknesses and faults and being pulled up by the surprise of grace, would be the first to admit the truth about themselves and the last to claim that they’re always right.”

    It is always seemed to me that, apart from Henry VIII’s political move because he wanted an annulment or two, the Reformation occurred because, to use a boxing analogy, everybody went back into their corner, spewing hate and the need to be right to the people in the opposite corner. In more contemporary terms, what they did was attempt to resolve the conflict on a win-lose basis . . . which went both ways. And which (as always) got nowhere.

    Had they been capable of looking at things on a win-win basis, the last 500 years might have been quite different. The sad thing is that it is now fifty years since Vatican II began, and Christianity seems to be just as divided as ever. The price for this is the increasing irrelevance of the churches to the ordinary lives of most people . . . specially the young.

    Our divisions, and the undiminishing need to be right (by some), are, in my opinion, reasons why many people are exiting the churches.
    Jesus told us, amongst other things, to love our neighbours as our self, and many look at our divisions and say, “you do not practice what you preach!”

  11. Padre Dave the Lutheran Avatar

    Thank you SO MUCH for making a point I have been making since 1976 when I became a Lutheran. Born, Baptized, Confirmed in the Polish parishes of Milwaukee, my reason for becoming a Lutheran was an immature one: a woman, who later left the Church for a gnostic cult and then left me. My zeal to try to save my marriage rekindled my Call to the priesthood that I unmistakenly received at age 7. I became a worker/priest, serving a large parish in Tucson while continuing to teach human anatomy, physiology, emergency medical services and equine animal science at our local community college. I was Called to a barrio parish where I served 10 years, got remarried (with Bishop’s permission), retired from teaching and served another 10 years in my current parish. I am “retiring” again next month and will continue to argue the point I have made all along: Vatican II proved Luther right, especially liturgically. Fr. Anthony you made my point even more eloquently! Thank you! Being the practical one, I ask you what I asked the faculty in the Centro Pro Unione in 2003: Now what? Do I just get to retire with a smile or can my next vocation be bringing us closer together. It will be tough on both sides. My side is just as tough as your side, but with God anything is possible!

  12. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
    Jordan Zarembo

    As a Catholic, the Lutheran theological tenet simul justus et peccator (“righteous and a sinner at the same time”) has always been at the forefront of my thought. It is unfortunate that the joint Catholic-Lutheran statement on justification stumbled over this question. Is concupiscence sin? Does this distinction matter?

    If I approach the Eucharist and nevertheless harbor ill-will against a sister or brother in my heart, am I making a worthy communion? A Catholic might say that, absent mortal sin (Luther denied the categorization of sin), the confiteor absolves a person of a ill-will which is not committed as a sin in the form of confrontation with another person. Luther’s point, however, is also well taken. If the human condition is never without some sort of distortion of the mind and will due to human frailty, then there are no discrete conditions where one is unbound by the tendency to mistrust, to dislike, even to defame. Rather, for Luther sin is a spectrum. Vexing question indeed.

    1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
      Karl Liam Saur

      @Jordan Zarembo:

      That way of framing it, however, strikes me as a formula for rationalizing chronic anxiety, which cannot be of God, as it is addictive/enslaving.

  13. Bill Keane Avatar

    As an 85-year old Vatican II Catholic I wholeheartedly agree with the article. I have always understood that Luther did not challenge our faith, merely how we lived and abused it. But I am troubled that as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation we are not attempting to convene a joint Catholic, Lutheran and general Christian meeting to study the impact of the Reformation on our current post-Christian culture and what we can do about it today.

  14. joseph mangone Avatar
    joseph mangone

    When I teach my Church history course, I ask my students to place the Augsburg Confession side by side with Vatican II’s “Constitution on the sacred Liturgy” and list the common points they both share.
    Thank you Fr anthony for this well balanced post about Luther..the man and the theologian….both sinner and saved at the same time, as Lutheran theology on grace is taught.
    I still believe that reformation day (Oct 310 should be observed in all Churches, including ours.

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