500 Years Later, Some Issues That Martin Luther Raised Remain On October 31, Catholics and Protestants take note of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, when the monk Martin Luther denounced Roman Catholicism. Most of the issues he raised have since been resolved. Still, divisive issues remain, such as the role of women and the authority of the clergy.
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500 Years Later, Some Issues That Martin Luther Raised Remain

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500 Years Later, Some Issues That Martin Luther Raised Remain

500 Years Later, Some Issues That Martin Luther Raised Remain

500 Years Later, Some Issues That Martin Luther Raised Remain

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/560276690/560276691" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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On October 31, Catholics and Protestants take note of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, when the monk Martin Luther denounced Roman Catholicism. Most of the issues he raised have since been resolved. Still, divisive issues remain, such as the role of women and the authority of the clergy.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Today we note that a rebellious act by a single German monk 500 years ago set the stage for centuries of violent religious conflict. It also introduced a new era of free thinking. The half of the U.S. population who call themselves Protestant trace that heritage to Martin Luther. His protest against corruption in the Roman Catholic Church sparked what became known as the Reformation. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: For most of the last 500 years, October 31 has been a day when Catholics and Lutherans remember why they split. Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, dared to challenge his church's beliefs and practices, none more odious than its claim that sinners could buy God's forgiveness by purchasing an indulgence. Lutherans have since been raised on the story of Luther's defiant preaching, as in this 1953 movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARTIN LUTHER")

NIALL MACGINNIS: (As Martin Luther) My beloved, you cannot buy God's mercy. Amen.

GJELTEN: Legend has it that on October 31, 1517, Luther nailed a list of his grievances to the door of his hometown church...

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

GJELTEN: ...A nice theatrical touch re-enacted in that classic Luther movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

GJELTEN: Actually, we don't know that Luther really did that, only that he mailed the list that day to his local archbishop. By so doing, he challenged the pope himself and the secular rulers allied with him. In the years that followed, Luther's Reformation brought religious and political freedoms to Europe. It also triggered persecution and war. On this anniversary, the Augustinian order to which Luther once belonged noted in a statement that the damage he did to monastic life in Germany was enormous. But Lutherans and Catholics today are closer than they've ever been.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BISHOP MUNIB YOUNAN: Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, together let us confess our faith.

GJELTEN: The anniversary year began with an ecumenical service in Sweden. It was led by Pope Francis himself along with the head of the Lutheran World Federation, representing more than 70 million Lutherans across the globe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: I believe in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord.

GJELTEN: Catholic and Lutheran leaders now agree, as Luther argued, that it's one's faith that gets you to heaven.

JOHN BORELLI: And that meant an emphasis on scripture.

GJELTEN: John Borelli, a Catholic scholar at Georgetown University, says church leaders in Rome began to acknowledge Luther's argument during the Vatican II council in the 1960s.

BORELLI: It took us only 450 years to see Luther's point. And in many ways, Vatican II was Luther's council.

GJELTEN: That point - theologians call it justification by faith - is just one of the examples where Lutherans and Catholics have come together. Elizabeth Eaton is the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the largest of the Lutheran denominations.

ELIZABETH EATON: That's a huge change if you think about it. Five hundred years ago, we were killing each other over some of these issues.

GJELTEN: Catholics have also accepted other Lutheran positions - for example, that people should be able to worship and read the Bible in their own language. But Eaton says Lutherans shouldn't feel too triumphalist.

EATON: We've had to say that breaking up the Western church was not a gift to the church. So we've acknowledged some of the critiques that the Roman Catholic Church has had against the Lutheran movement.

GJELTEN: Indeed, the Catholic-Lutheran reconciliation that has taken place in recent years involves apologies on both sides. Bishop Denis Madden of Baltimore, who leads the ecumenical movement on the Catholic side, says his church has to take some responsibility for the rupture of the Christian world.

DENIS MADDEN: Catholics should do penance for setting the stage for that. It was not out of the blue that that happened. The society, the church, the way things were being done at that time called for reform.

GJELTEN: Many issues still divide Catholics and Lutherans - whether women can be ordained, for example, or whether same-sex marriages should be allowed. But the churches are moving closer on one core question - whether they can celebrate communion together, a goal for some future Reformation anniversary. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

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